GUCR 2010

On the weekend of May 29-30th I completed the Grand Union Canal Run, official race distance 145 miles (233 km), actual distance nearer 148 (238 km).

Having failed last year from going out too fast, I had a plan this year to run no more than 4.5 mph (7.5 kph) in the first 12 hours, and 4.2 (6.8 kph) for the next 4, which brings you the Navigation Inn checkpoint just as it gets dark at 10 pm and you can dress up for the night round Milton Keynes. Then I would see what happened, but having got half way in 16.5 hours, a 36-37 hour finish doesn’t seem implausible. Yeah right.

I did go much slower than last year. I was in last place much of the way to the first checkpoint at 10.7 miles (17.2 km). It takes quite some discipline to be happy in last place. I was last coming into the checkpoint, though in reality a bunch of us came in together and I let them go ahead. That was not chivalry but so I could see my progress on the checkpoint timing spreadsheet – I wanted to start low and move up the field through the race.

Fiddling with my Garmin at the start in Gas Street Basin, 5.57 am Satuday

From training I knew that when fresh I only had to run 12 minutes of each hour to achieve 4.2 mph. So there is a lot of fast walking and I was doing that. But I was running a bit more, covering 4.8 mph rather than 4.2-4.5 as per race plan. By hours 5 and 6 I was doing 20/10 walk/run to maintain 4.8, running each of the first six hours in a pretty even 4.8 mph (i.e. just over a quarter of a mile faster than planned). In principle the Garmin (a running watch with GPS so it measures your time, distance and pace) is a great help as a source of discipline, but I think it also pushed me too hard most the time I was using it.  Hours 7-16 I mostly had one long walk (30 minutes) and one short one (15-20 minutes) each hour running for 8-12 minutes after each walk, maintaining 4.2-4.5 mph.

I was moving 5-6 places up the field between each checkpoint. Between the first and second checkpoints it was the runners I had been with at the first checkpoint, but after checkpoint 2 at 22.5 miles (37.2 km) I started catching people. I was surprised to be catching them so soon, but then that was where people started catching me last year.

I had none of the pains I suffered from last year as my running form was better, partly as I was fitter, partly as I have done some core stability, and partly as I only ever carried a water bottle. Carrying a pack reinforces my inherent asymmetry and leads to back pain. And as my form was better I wasn’t kicking myself in the ankles every four steps, which hurt quite a bit last year.

Saturday was a day of frequent and heavy rain, which I imagine was pretty miserable for my crew, Helen and George.  But I was able to keep eating, and we had a system of pre-packed bags that worked well in the first day. And I didn’t mind the rain as it kept me cool. When the weather finally cleared mid afternoon I changed my shoes and socks.

Despite the rain, I really enjoyed the first 12 hours. These are the most beautiful sections of the canal, especially the stretch from Birmingham to Warwick. Moving along at an easily-manageable pace, I enjoyed the frequent extended green vistas of rolling hills and woods; middle England at its best. The route does not pass through many villages, but Braunston is gorgeous.

Although at 30 miles I was getting close to an hour behind my time last year, I reached the Heart of England Checkpoint (53 miles, 85.3 km) in 11.45 just 5 minutes behind last year’s time. I went onto to reach Navigation Inn (70.8 miles, 113.9 km) at 9.45 pm, compared to 10.30 pm the year before, and was to reach the place I dropped out at 5.23 am last year at 3.09 am this year. Over two hours faster and going strong. I must be doing something right. I was but I was also doing something wrong, especially at that point.

I really wanted to run the first 100 miles (160.9 km) in 24 hours.  The course distance is canal miles, that is the distance as if you ran down the middle of the canal. You could try that I suppose, but it’d be rather wet and there’d be a lot of boats in the way. But actual miles are more than canal miles since the tow path crosses the canal every so often, and there are three places you leave the canal where it follows a straight line through a tunnel and you take paths up and over the hill. Including the rather horrible diversion less than 10 miles from the end because of a path closure, then the route comes in nearer 148 miles, rather than the canal distance of 145.  I say all this to say that though I reached the checkpoint at 99.5 miles after 6 am Sunday morning, I believe I made 100 real miles just inside 24 hours.

I picked up a sprain to my left calf a little after Navigation Inn (70.8 miles). Running on it was difficult, but the pain cleared after a minute or so of running, though the time for the pain to clear was getting longer each time I ran. As dawn broke south of Leighton Buzzard I started to run quite a bit, partly driven by my 100 miles in 24 hour goal, and partly to get my quota of overtakes. Both were goals too far, resulting in my straining the right calf also. I say strain rather pull since I have pulled a calf and it is a different order of pain, this was just a strong clenched fist squeezing at the muscles, but it was uncomfortable and made it hard to run.

4.30 am Sunday: Back at our race HQ in Epping, Auntie Felicity blow dries my shoes (crew member Uncle George hovers in background)

At 98.5 miles I told my support crew, I can walk in from here at 3 mph and still finish at 8 pm, and I think that’s what will happen.  That plan depended on two things, being able to maintain 3 mph and my arithmetic being right. I soon realized it wasn’t, and that I was looking at a 9 pm finish. However, if I did 3.5 mph (17 minutes per mile, mpm) instead, then I’d get the extra hour back for that 8pm finish.   I had got my Garmin back fully recharged at the 98.5 mile checkpoint, and it told me I was walking around 18 mpm (3.3 mph), so just past Tring I put in a good few minutes run/shuffle to bring the average down to 16.25 mpm, planning to run each time it got to around 16.50 to keep below 17 mpm. You have to use a Garmin, and have an obsessive personality, to follow all that.

However, the tightness in my calves seemed to put any further running out of the question. I just couldn’t start up. I was overtaken for the first time. I walked down through Berkhamstead, which really is lovely; I don’t know what Graham Greene was so depressed about.  The attached photo must have been taken somewhere around here (around 110 miles, 177 km) as I am still in my night gear. Next checkpoint I put on lashings of ibuprofen gel on both calves and popped a couple of cataflam, an Egyptian equivalent of ibuprofen but stronger.  This seemed to help and I started running again a bit, overtaking a couple of runners, one of whom was asleep so that wasn’t so challenging. I was getting close to a couple more, but had been out for more than an hour since the last check and wanted to refuel.  My crew had gone to Sainsbury’s to resupply and just missed me at the planned point just outside the M25 (the London orbital motorway). The first sections inside the M25 there are few access points, so in the end I was three hours without support. Getting inside the M25 was a real boost, as people who get that far nearly always finish. On the other hand it was turning into a hot day and I really wanted some food and water. I lost my form, my back starting to hurt very quickly.  I am walking pretty slowly into the next supply point, though pick up a bit after I leave it having refueled.

Somewhere around 108-110 miles about 8 am Sunday, who's smiling now?

As I slowed a lot, and stopped both at the supply point, shortly after that to change into shorts and for a ‘rest break’ at a pub, my pace had gone up to 18.33 mpm. I could still walk at a smartish pace and slowly bring it down, and that is what I did.  There was no running, but walking quite fast so only a couple of people overtook me before the checkpoint at Springfield Lock: 25 miles to the finish.

I set off again, walking confidently. The 9pm finish seems more likely now, but I am fine with that. I left the people who overtook me at Springfield Lock, since I haven’t sat down at any checkpoint except Bridge 99 (84 miles). Over four miles since the checkpoint and they are still behind me. Walking I don’t expect to overtake anyone, but to keep up a reasonable pace to hold off most of those behind me.

But. Just short of 20 miles (32.2 km) from the finish I get my first attack of total exhaustion. Suddenly I can barely walk. The tightness in my calves is intense. I try to massage them, though they are very tender. For 5-10 minutes I stagger on at a slow shuffle, the uneven juttering jarring my back. Ok, this is just silly. I don’t think my body has forgotten what it is meant to do, but it has certainly had enough of doing it. So, I gather some mental strength, repeating to myself “just put one foot in front of the other, one foot in front of the other.”  There are some narrow paving stones by the side of path, so I focus hard on walking along them, one slab at a time. Doing this I improve my form, and so manage to move forward at a slightly faster pace. I am passing through Uxbridge now. In principle I know this stretch of the canal well, but it takes much longer than I expect to get to the next supply point. I tell another runner’s support crew “I’m dead, me. I’ll be finishing at 1-2 in the morning”, which at my current pace is about right. They tell me I’ll get my wind back. True enough, having downed a chocolate soya milk and some food I manage to pick up my stride. It’s not fast, but carries me steadily on to Bulls Bridge Junction and the last 13 miles down the Paddington Arm. I get there at 5 pm Sunday. Okay 13 miles, half marathon – a very slow two hour run. Not today.

The path up to the last checkpoint at Hamsborough Tavern is not smooth so difficult for my robot pace. In the last few yards swans block my way and I have to climb under the fence to the road. “Can we do anything for you?” they ask at the checkpoint. “Yes, make this the finish” I tell them. The path after the tavern is better. The bottom of my feet feel like my shoes are fall of stones (they’re not), but I don’t dare take them off for fear of what I’ll find, and I’ll never get them on again.  (During the night at around 80 miles I pass a pair of runners, one of whom is sitting. “Are you alright”, I asked. They say he has got a blister. Well, hello, you just ran 80 miles. Expect blisters and ignore them. Deal with them next week). I do try to run but it is very difficult and I don’t think any faster than I am walking anyway so I abandon that and don’t try again. With about 10 miles to go we reach the diversion. It starts with a terrible and long up hill, through warm suburban streets. As we start it (I am being walked through by Oscar from my crew) the exhaustion hits again. He tries to encourage me all he can, but all I can do is keep a slow stagger.  I don’t know how long it takes to get back to the canal, but it is a long while. I pick up a bit there, though the back pain is now very bad. From there on, I am walking, hands on hips a lot of the time to relieve the back, and stooping more and more as I go. By the last mile I am bent double attempting a fast walk as I think I see someone behind me – there isn’t. In this final mile there can be no doubt: I am saying to myself “I am going to be in the Hall of Fame, I am going to be in the Hall of Fame”, the name of the list of runners who complete the GUCR.

Finally Marcus and Helen come back down the tow path to tell me the finish is just around the corner “a few more minutes”.

There it is. I stand straight(ish) to cross the line: 10.16 pm, 40 hours and 16 minutes.  Dick’s enthusiasm for my finish is genuine and heartfelt.  He hugs me and gives me my medal. I sit down and stay down for quite some time. Photos are taken. I get my shoes off, change my top, climb in the back of George’s Landrover and am soon fast asleep.

Having a nice sit down after 40 hours, Little Venice 10pm Sunday

Looking back and reflections: Yes, I finished, but not without making a mistake. I ran the first 100 miles as a 100 mile race, not as the first 100 miles of a 145 (148) mile race. I really, really wanted to make 100 miles in 24 hours. I am very happy that I did, and, on balance, achieving that goal may well have been worth what happened to me after 24 hours. But it was because of that target that I stuck to clocking up 4.8s rather than 4.5s, and then pushed myself somewhat during the night and even more after dawn on the Sunday morning when the sprain was clearly worsening.  I do believe that an even slower pace for the first half, by around 45 minutes, and then probably walking the whole night as many do, would have allowed to keep going and come in an hour faster, perhaps a bit more.

So, I think the plan I had was a good one, and I had stuck more closely to it, I would have fared better. But of course all the plans in the world won’t work without good support. My two support crews were (1) my uncle George with my sister-in-law Helen, and (2) my brother Marcus with Helen’s brother, Oscar. I know as well as anyone how annoying it is that people only seem to notice the one thing you do wrong and not the 100 you do right. So sorry to them for my obvious annoyance when things did go wrong, though I did try to remain polite. I really appreciate that driving round to meeting points is, as they told me, “more difficult than just following the canal”. And they can’t really be expected to know what I am thinking. We did much better than last year in a plan for feeding, using pre-packed bags for most stops. I had said I wanted water to pour over myself every stop from stop 2, which I missed out last year. Helen would wait religiously huddled under a bridge in the pouring rain with my bottle of water to pour over myself, and thankfully didn’t stop doing so though I was refusing them, continuing to bring them right to the end, when I was incapable of thinking of it, but it really helped. It was Helen and Marcus who suggested tomato juice as a race drink, which turned out to be a great idea, as it is a change from the sweet stuff. I recommend it, and add some salt. Having said, that, I have a craving for Pepsi when running and must have drunk 7-8 litres of the stuff.

Thanks of course also to the checkpoint staff. As I was more mentally aware this year I hope I showed my appreciation as I passed through. But thanks again for their dedication for staying up day and night to provide needed succor to 100 weary strangers. And of course thanks to Dick and his family. Dick’s dedication is truly amazing. He arrives at the finish at Little Venice in time for the first finisher around 9 am on Sunday morning – 27 hours after he started the race at Gas Street Basin, and having followed the leaders though the checkpoints - and is still at Little Venice at 3 am Monday morning to see in the last finishers. He knows all the runners by name. And really does seem to have a personal stake in every single one of those runners. He certainly made me feel that he really cared if I finished or not, and shared a genuine joy when I did. But it is not just race day, the logistics of an event such as this are enormous, all done by Dick and his family on a voluntary basis. And now he organizes the Thames Ring too. He truly is the backbone of ultra running in the UK, and the very reason that there is an ultra-ultra community.

It never seriously occurred to me to stop.  There were times in the last twenty miles when I wanted to lie down and sleep. But I knew that was just silly and dismissed them.  I am not sure why it was that stopping didn’t present itself as such an attractive option, unlike the year before when I first wanted to stop at 60 miles. Last year during training I was frequently thinking of myself crossing the finish line. Not only was it a motivating factor on training runs, it was pretty much an obsession during many waking hours. I have read on other blogs of runners who feel the same, and I certainly know from the past how it is to structure your whole life around training for an event some months off.  But it wasn’t like that this year at all. I was putting in loads of miles, more than ever before in my life, but I really wasn’t thinking about the finish.  The best I can explain why it never occurred to me to stop is this. Last year I didn’t know if I could do it or not. On top of that I went out too fast, was unable to eat much after just a few hours, and had my first low after only 30 miles having started to already fall down the field a few miles earlier. This year I was a ‘man with a plan’, and that plan got me through to a little over 100 miles with relative ease if that doesn’t sound like a contradiction in terms. By then I figured I could walk it in in 38-39 hours if I walked at 3 miles an hour, and I was comfortably managing more than that.  My real lows started with less than 20 miles to go. But I knew the rule “people who get inside the M25 finish”, so I was going to finish. During my first low it looked like that finish was going to be 42-43 hours, but even then it never seriously crossed my mind to stop.  I guess what I am saying is you have to be fit enough and run sensibly enough to get within striking distance of the M25 without too much difficulty, and once you’re there then something inside you will just keep you going ‘til you cross the finish line. Oh and it helped that the weather was much better this year than last. The rain was fine, especially compared to last year’s high temperatures.

So, advice on finishing:

Do enough training and taper. I averaged 50 miles a week January – March. In fact I did alternate long and short weeks (60 miles or more then 40 miles or more) which helped recovery. I of course included some back to backs. This is more than I have ever run before, and showed in improved performance, even if the concentration of long slow runs slowed me down. April I was traveling a lot and couldn’t maintain the mileage but used it as a chance to focus a bit on tempo, and then May I was mostly sick and tapering. So my training wasn’t ideal, but the high mileage was what was needed.  I really would have liked to include one 50 mile race, but my work schedule didn't allow it. So my longest run was 31 miles, but with six runs of marathon distance or more since January. For the curious, read the blog on my website (

Start slow. It depends on your ability, but this will be slower than 5 mph for anyone expecting to finish in 36 hours or more. That is much slower than you expect to run, and can be managed with a lot of walking.  During training I did three marathon or longer length training runs with a lot of walking, at paces between 4.5 and 5.25 mph. Do these to get an idea of how fast you can walk, and indeed to practice walking. A Garmin is really, really helpful for such training, unless you have a route with accurate distance markers.

Keep eating, a little and often. My target was an intake of 350-400 calories an hour. Most things are around 100 calories (a large banana, a gel, a pack of crisps, a cereal bar). But a 500 litre bottle of Pepsi packs 209 calories, so one of those, a bag of crisps and a cereal bar would give me my 400. On the first day I had veggie sausage sandwiches, and tomato sandwiches, but I couldn’t really digest those on the second day. I can always eat baked beans, and was having those right up to the very last supply point, when I "drank" them straight from the can as the crew had run out of spoons and forks. Find out what works for you. It was only on my last training run I discovered how good crisps are, and must have got through 20 packs on the run.

Run your own race. Don’t worry about anyone else. Don’t worry about being last, you won’t stay there. Don’t try to catch people. Just stick to your plan.

Brief your support crew. Good support is vital to finishing (I am truly impressed by the self-supported, who seem to be running a much harder race), so make sure your support crew know where you want them and what for. To the extent you can anticipate your needs do so. At one stop tell them what you want next time. I also used the mobile to phone in requests. (Carry a mobile for sure).

And so?

The calf sprains were still with me as I started to write this report three days later. They make it difficult to walk. But worse is the pain on the bottom of both feet, and that is still there one week after the race when I am finishing this report. The pain makes walking very painful unless you manage to walk without putting your feet on the ground, and I haven’t figure out how to do that yet. Well there is a sort of waddle like a constipated duck I figured out, but I don’t use it. And you can also shift around on your bottom as I did the first day at home, but it doesn’t seem very appropriate when going to the shops.  Seeing my obvious pain family and friends ask me “was it worth it?”. There is no one iota of doubt in my mind, “Yes”.