Grand Union Canal Race 2017

Looking rather chuffed with my trophy :)

Looking a bit chuffed with my awesome trophy 🙂

It’s nearly two weeks since GUCR and I’m still processing the experience. It would be fair to say that I completely obsessed over this race for the preceding six months and training took priority over most other things (like my social life). But I don’t believe in doing things by halves and I was just not willing to stand on the start line feeling under-prepared.

There’s a certain amount of folklore around GUCR in ultra-running circles; it’s an absolute classic and I’d heard nothing but positive things about the race and organisers Dick Kearne and Keith Godden. For the uninitiated, it’s Britain’s longest non-stop race, covering 145 miles of historic canals from Gas Street Basin in Birmingham to Paddington Basin/Little Venice in London. I spent months poring over blog posts about the race, so apologies if this is on the long side; it’s partly for the memories of what was an incredibly special event, and partly to pass on knowledge about the race from my corner of the interweb to prospective runners.

I’m not someone with bucketloads of self-belief, but I’m a realist and like to think fairly aware of my ability as a runner; following a 19:08 finish at the SDW100 last June, 17:24 at A100 in October, then two marathons in 3:06 and 3:07 this year in April and May, I definitely felt as capable as I’d ever been of having a good crack at GUCR. I’d studied the entrants list and felt like good competition could come from Wendy Shaw and Izzy Cairns, both runners with really impressive race times.

The week prior the race was a reading week at university and, while I had grand plans to study, I became completely consumed with race logistics. There was a lot to organise; the duration of the race meant I’d had to organise three crews, each for 12 hour shifts (that included post-race duties I didn’t want to overlook, like being driven home 🙂 ), and I was extremely fortunate to have willing friends and family to fulfil these roles. I shopped for food (knowing fully well I wouldn’t eat most of it), met my crew to talk things through, and meticulously filled in the sheet of estimated arrival times at each crew point. It was part guesswork and made me feel a bit sick – the race started to hit home when I was having to commit to writing what time I was hoping to be through CP9 having run 133 miles.

On Friday lunchtime my Dad drove over and we started the journey from London to Birmingham at about 1pm; I’d envisaged arriving in Birmingham in the early afternoon and having time to do a last minute shop and scope out the start line, but in reality, heavy traffic and a stop off for Jon meant we only just made registration at 8pm. I’d hoped to join runners in the pub next door but by the time we’d ferried things from the car, it was bed time.

I set my alarm at 4:40am to maximise sleep, knowing I would be on my feet for so long and that I could probably get away without eating too much for breakfast, providing I was disciplined about eating early on in the race. I also did that thing you’re never meant to do of wearing a new vest, although everything else was tried and tested. I opted for Hokas which seemed like the most sensible footwear choice over the distance.

I was insistent we left the hotel early at 5:35am, despite the fact that we staying practically on the start line; I wanted to soak up the pre-race atmosphere and the minute we turned the corner on to Gas Street I had goose bumps. It was just a load of runners milling around and a van for drop bags, but it was more that fact that it was the culmination of a few years’ of curiosity about the event and six months’ graft.

After a few nervous hellos and a briefing from Dick, we were off at 6am prompt, led by a couple of chancers who were probably still out from the night before.

Spot the non-runners at the front! Pic from GUCR

Start to CP1 (Catherine de Barnes Bridge) 10.7 miles [Plan – 1:42, actual – ~1:44]

The first part of the race was stunning, along the waterways of central Birmingham in the morning light. The weather was billed to be ‘scorchio’ which, having read Debbie MC’s blog from her 2012 experience in torrential rain, I was happy about, despite not loving running in hot weather. Showers were forecast for the morning and the heavens opened just before CP1 on a particularly leafy stretch which sheltered us from the worst of the rain.

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First few miles of the race

I was running in first lady position from the start, which wasn’t really the plan – I’m rubbish with pressure. I was trying to stick to 9 minute miles and my race plan allowed for 9:36min/miles for the first 25 miles, so I was surprised and slightly pissed off to arrive into CP1 a couple of minutes outside my schedule.

My race strategy was for a sub-30 hour finish based on something in between my SDW100 and A100 times – I’d finished the former feeling fresh and latter, well, I was in the bathroom 10 minutes after crossing the line. I predicted a gradual deterioration of pace, and worked out my arrival times at each crew point based on the following. To be fair, they were completely arbitrary and I didn’t really plan on trying to stick to them – secretly I wanted to be ahead of schedule which I knew would make me feel good, mentally. So in a way, the plan was to trick myself into thinking I was doing better than I was by running to a slower schedule, which sounds a bit perverse, but always seems to work for me in races. I guess I’m quite a simple person really.

25 miles – 4 hours (9:36 min/mile ave pace)
50 miles – 8:30 hours (10:12min/mi) – +4:30 hours
75 miles – 13:30 hours (10:48 min/miles) +5 hours
100 miles – 19 hours (11:24 min/miles) +5.5 hours
125 miles – 25 hours (12:00 min/miles) +6 hours
145 miles – 30 hours (12:24 min/miles)

CP1 to CP2 (Hatton Locks) 22.5 miles [Plan – 3:31, actual – ~3:33]

I’d successfully eaten half a bagel (saved from breakfast), a couple of baby foods and Gu choc PB gels by CP2, which was good going, given that I’m rubbish at eating on races. I was slightly over my target time again, but reasoned that the course was probably a bit long or my watch was inaccurate, given it was set to lower GPS accuracy. Steph, Andy and Jon were crewing for the day shift and they switched my bottles and fed me coffee – part of the all-important constant caffeine drip throughout the race. I’d done that thing of foregoing (well, vastly decreased my intake of) caffeine the week before the race which wasn’t as bad as I expected, other than the time I had to drink a matcha latte in a cafe instead of a flat white when I met Nic for pre-race prep.

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Pic – Steph. One of the lovely locks 🙂

CP2 to CP3 (Birdingbury Bridge) 35.9 miles [Plan – 5:48, actual – ~5:40] and CP3 to CP4 (Heart of England) 53.1 miles [Plan – 9:01, actual – 8:35]

I’d recced the Napton Junction to Braunston Tunnel stretch, as it involved a left turn and short section away from the canal, which looked harmless on the map but I knew could be confusing after nearly 50 miles on my feet. Huge thanks to Paul Mason for his advice on this – I’d spotting on Facebook that he was putting in a lot of recces and I was keen to focus on a few key stretches ahead of the race. I know plenty of people who’ve run GUCR without setting a foot on the course and the detailed course maps are really easy to follow so recceing is by no means essential, but I felt happier having checked out a few stretches.

A good stretch of this was over grassy, slightly bumpy terrain and I took a tumble while overtaking another runner. It was a really scenic bit surrounded by hills and fields – I must confess that, completely unfairly, I never really imagined it would be so stunning. The river was full of bank holiday punters – a few asked where we were running to but I didn’t have the chance to clock their reaction when I called out, “London!” I ran with Paul Beechey who was looking incredibly comfortable and was great company; he would go on to finish second and run a superb race.

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CP4 to CP5 (Navigation Bridge) 70.5 miles [Plan – 12:36, actual – 11:35]

I’d given up on trying to eat real food by this stretch. Grapes were OK. Baby food was getting a bit sickly. Choc milk and Mountain Fuel were keeping me moving forwards. My usual mantra of ‘it’s just running and eating’ was starting to fail me a bit, as both things were starting to feel like an effort. I was feeling nauseous and I knew the only way to handle this was to have what I would have once upon a time called a ‘tactical puke’ (usually preceded by a lot of alcohol).  I think I’d read someone else’s GUCR blog about it so it seemed legit. I’d never run 145 miles before so I had no idea what I was doing. I stopped in a quiet spot after CP5 out of sight of my crew or other spectators/runners in case they were worried about me and felt much, much better for it for the next 30 miles or so. I’ll try and spare too much graphic detail, but I basically felt rough for a lot of the rest of the race and was sick about four times, and with hindsight I’m surprised my race went so well considering. Mind over matter, I guess. I’ve also promised myself I won’t dwell on it too much in this race report in case I come back to read it and convince myself I don’t want to do Spartathlon.

CP5 to CP6 (Water Eaton) 84.5 miles [Plan – 15:21, actual – 14:20]

I went through the official halfway point at 72.5 miles in 11:58; my brain goes a bit mushy and I can’t cope with sums while running, but I could just about work out that I was well on schedule for my sub-30 target. There was a crew switchover on this stretch; my Dad and Nic took over from Steph and Andy, and I changed into a tshirt ready for the night, babywipped my face and felt like a new person. I’d borrowed a SPOT tracker from a friend which was attached to the front, right hand side of my race vest with cable ties and was bouncing around and had started to annoy me, so I cut it off and gave it to Jon to carry. He ran with me from 80-95 miles, then when Nic took over from 95-110, I forgot to get it back for the duration of the race, so it did a few stretches in the car and a trip around Tesco for emergency provisions. Oops.

The night shift and a stunning sunset

The night shift and a stunning sunset

CP6 to CP7 (Grand Junction Arms) 99.8 miles [Plan – 18:57 , actual – 17:33]

There was a key nav point at 98 miles at Marsworth Juntion that I’d recced, but still wasn’t 100% sure about. I was finding setting mini-goals to be a really effective way of motivating myself to keep moving forward, such as getting to the next crew point by a certain time (say, five miles in an hour). Nic was really good company and although I wasn’t really feeling that chatty, he was great at gauging how I was feeling. In particular, he encouraged me to wash my hands and face after I was ‘ill’ which helped me feel human again – a bit like that best friend who holds your hair back for you when you’ve drunk too much 🙂

I did some rough maths at around this stage, after clearing the 100 mile point in roughly 17:35, and realising I only had to run 45 miles in under 10 hours to be on for the female course record.

CP7 to CP8 (Springwell) 120.3 miles [Plan – 23:47, actual – ~21:47]

Despite the fact I was struggling to eat, caramel stroopwaffles were going down really well – of course it was Sod’s law that when I bought them, I assumed there was no way I’d get through all ten in the pack, so ate two walking around the shops. I barely touched the rest of my food. The eight left went down really well and were like gold dust; fortunately Nic had a few Gu caramel waffles spare which were similar.

My Dad was keen I had company for the overnight stretches; it would be fair to say that there are some interesting folk living on the canal, but I didn’t encounter anything that felt unsafe – the few drunk people I ran past in the wee hours either completely ignored me or cheered.

CP8 to CP9 (H’borough Tavern) 133 miles [Plan – 27:15, actual – 24:40]

Jon was getting excited by this stage and reporting back to his parents on my progress – he was practically on the phone to them telling them I was on course for the CR, but I still had a long way to go so discouraged him. He ran with me for most of this stretch; he was fantastic and tried to make conversation but I just wasn’t in the mood. It was at this point that I think my Dad was making frantic calls to Susie, who was due to start crewing at about 6am; the plan was for him to drive to near the finish line, have a few hours sleep, as he’d been up for over 24 hours, then run the last six miles in with me. But given that I was two and half hours ahead of schedule, he lost this precious sleep time. Sorry about that, Dad.

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CP9 to finish (Little Venice) 145 miles [Plan – 30:00, actual – 27:26]

It was awesome to see Susie – she was so encouraging and thrilled by my progress. I was broken by this stage but the sun was shining and it was a stunning morning. I gave up on trying to eat for the last three hours or so, knowing I could get by on liquid nutrition for this relatively short distance. Reaching Bulls Bridge junction came as a huge relief – this landmark was the last key nav point and it was just 13.5 miles to the finish line. Six miles before the finish, my Dad took over pacing duties – we’d agreed we’d run the last bit in together.

I had very little left to give at this stage and, knowing I was comfortably under the course record time, we walked the last three miles in to the finish, seeing friends Rhianon and Sarah Saywer (off to intercept Tom, who was also running). They were extremely encouraging, but I was on the verge of tears.

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Six miles to go – completely exhausted – face says it all

Approaching the finish line, I could hear cheering and cowbells (thanks to the Fulham Running Club contingent who had come to support). I wanted to muster up the energy to break into a run, but it turned out to be more of a ridiculous looking hobble.

There were a lot of tears at the finish line, and I must confess I sobbed on Dick’s shoulder as he gave me my medal. I think they were tears of relief, exhaustion and just sheer surprise as the result sank in. I had broken the female course record by 37 minutes and finished third over all. I was also completely blown away by the support at the finish line – thanks everyone that came down. It meant a lot. And the watering can trophy was the icing on the cake.

After sitting down at the finish line I physically couldn’t get up again and had to be carried to Susie’s car by Jon and Nic. Once home, I went to bed (it was about 12pm on Sunday) and didn’t emerge for 24 hours. I was absolutely exhausted. My left hip and ankle were swollen and my feet very blistered – I don’t usually succumb so badly.

Being carried

Being carried

The aftermath of the race has involved resting a lot – I promised myself two weeks off but I must admit I am chomping at the bit to get out for a run in my GUCR tshirt. Obviously it’ll have to be for a parkrun or something else short and ridiculously showy-offy.

Results board - pic by GUCR

Results board – pic by GUCR

I really can’t thank Dick and Keith enough for such a fantastic race. It really did live up to every thing I’d expected. I’ll definitely be back to volunteer or crew a willing victim next year 🙂

Official results here: http://www.gucr.co.uk/template.asp?doc=341

Full GPS track here (minus the last few miles when my watch ran out of battery): https://www.strava.com/activities/1026647066

 

7 thoughts on “Grand Union Canal Race 2017

  1. Andrew Stringer

    Well that’s an awesome read! Thanks for taking the time to get this up, Cat – amazing reliving it through your words.

    Reply
  2. Francis Graham-Dixon

    What an epic tale, Cat! You paint such a vivid picture of a groundbreaking journey, evoking so well the tension between mind and body as you reeled in all those miles. I shall return to this for inspiration as I prepare for A100, and hopefully beyond. Thanks so much.

    Reply
  3. Paula

    I am in awe of what you have acheived and put your mind to and execute to do so well. Thank you for telling the tale of the experience . a great incite into long distance running.

    Reply
  4. Lydia Tapley

    An amazing feat Cat, and so lovely to read your personal story. I am at a loss to find the right words! I am in awe of your energy, drive, endurance, enthusiasm, tenacity ……… well done!

    Reply

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