This has been the longest time between racing and writing a report for me. Two months or so. And for no other reason than the fact that I’ve been too busy sharing my time with so many other things like holidays, work, family, more training and volunteering. All sorts of stuff. So to get things going and jump straight into it I wanted to report on my weekend running the Grand Union Canal Race. I did not run the full 145 but I did manage to finish 100 miles of the race which really sat well in my mind considering I had no support crew or pacer through the race. And after my Thames Path DNF at mile 72 it really was a boost for me that I had it in me to finish 100 miles. I’d lost all confidence in myself with that race. Weird how just one failed run did that but this was all new to me. I’m learning. Strange how this year has panned out. Such a good training period for six months and then a couple of very odd experiences in races. Still, I wouldn’t change a thing. This is how it happened and there’s only going forward now and moving on. There’s lots of plans coming together already for next year but that is for another post. Grand Union Canal all kicked off on the Friday before the race. I took a train to London from Portsmouth and then popped onto a 1st class train from there to Birmingham. I only got the 1st class ticket because weirdly it came up as the cheapest option for that day!? Having never travelled first class on a Virgin train before, I declined the food service trolley not realizing until afterwards that it was all free! Bloody hell. What a nobby I am. Once I arrived I walked over to my hotel and found my mate Dave who had taken an early bus up. We got to the room, settled and then were off down to the registration which was super quick. We also had a bite to eat in one of the pubs and bumped into a load of other runners from Portsmouth and other places who knew Dave. It was there that I got a call I wasn’t expecting. My pacer had to drop due to injury. I was pretty gutted for us both. Bad for him being injured and he must have felt terrible telling me the news, and I felt after the Thames Path that it was something I really needed. As I mentioned earlier, I had lost confidence that I was able to finish a 100 mile race and so with the added challenges of this event I was now really worried. It was there at dinner after that message came through that I think I decided to try and get to 100 miles. I also had the added pressure of getting back already because we had a holiday to go on first thing on Monday after the race. The quicker I got home the better. It just felt like all the signs were pointing me towards that 100 miles …. and to go from there.
I shared my room with my running friend Dave Harvey, sometimes known as ‘metal boy’ for his love of the music but I reckon it’s because he’s hard as nails when it comes to running ultras. Dave is a great runner and very supportive and it was nice to just chill before the race together and chat tactics. We chilled in the room for a bit and then headed off out to get registered. Registration was really easy and very quick. I also ensured I got one of those little keys for access to the canal side taps and toilets on route during the race. We had some food from a pub around the corner and also bumped into a load of other runners and crew members. Then it was off to bed for the night. Easy night! Alarms went off really early. We got ready, had some coffee and breakfast in the room, and took a walk along the road to the start. Lots of runners were around but a fairly small crowd to other events I’m used to. Clearly less people keen on running along a canal for 145 miles. I saw a few familiar people around – some from Instagram or Twitter and others I knew through Strava and running. Before long we had a very relaxed briefing which was focused around runners keeping themselves safe and enjoying the event. I remember the race director briefing stating that many would not be making it to the finish but our health was the most important thing. Then we were off. My memory isn’t what it used to be and because I have left things so long to write this I’m not going to try and recount every small detail but I wanted to remember a few things that stood out –
1. The canal is actually quite beautiful and strange all at the same time. I found the canal boat living stuff pretty but also sometimes strange with some lovely and rather odd boats and strange looking setups along the route. Really all interesting. There were lots of friendly people around and at one point someone shouted over at me from a moving boat to stop filling my bottles with the toilet tap. Thank goodness that happened otherwise I’d have got ill by drinking other peoples …. I’ll stop there. The people along the canal are amazing. Some had food out near their boats. Other people buy runners drinks! A man at a bar which was on the canal bought me an Appletiser. What a dude! It was so hot on the day I needed it.
2. The stops between check points in this race are very long. They start short, but gradually increase and some of them were nearly 20 miles long. In the later stages of the race this scared me and filled me with dread. It’s a great idea to get a crew and/or a buddy runner to join you for the second half. You can have up to one buddy runner at a time though, and they must run behind you or beside you, not in front of you. The gaps between the stops take ages and as it was hot I ran out of water a few times which is why I found myself in a pub and shop at some points. Fortunately you can factor those into your race but always good to know where they are and make use of them when you pass them. Not 5km after you pass one! Having a crew helps though as I passed by loads of crew members waiting with ice buckets with cold drinks and bottles and food. A friend Heather who was crewing for Dave gave me a lovely ice cream on route but it melted and dropped on the floor half way through. Noooo! Dave told me he remembered seeing it on the floor when he ran past it. So funny.
3. Pacing. This is not the race you head off like a bat out of hell at. Oh no. Most will be destined to blow up if that was done. There were lots of things I considered for pacing however I just went with the run run run run run run until I needed to run walk, and go from there. That wasn’t a good idea looking back. Many runners were doing a run walk routine which they kept to quite strictly from the start and it does seem the best way to go. Next time (yep, next time for sure) I’ll likely be adopting some of that wisdom for my own race. It’s a long, long way
4. The volunteers were absolutely amazing. Although there are big gaps between check points, those stations are really well managed and the people looking after them are really trying their best to look after the runners. They were so attentive and always ensured you had access to your drop bag very quickly. That is the drop bag that got transported to each check point which ends up being a kind of life line. I didn’t plan well enough with my own and I’d have had more squash and coke in it had I known.
The race went pretty well for me overall. I slowed a lot in the last quarter of the race but managed to keep to some kind of system of running and walking but not on any kind of strict time scale. I just wanted to get the sub 24 hour 100 miles in which I did. One of my good friends Jason was camping near Winchester during the race and had agreed to get a train up on the Sunday morning to run me through to the finish. I had let him know the night before that I was likely not to continue on past the hundred mile mark but he was on standby regardless. What a dude. He was going to leave his camping holiday with the family to come and get me through to the finish and home afterwards. Once I got to the 100 mile mark which was achieved by running a few loops around one of the check points, I handed in my number and called the race director. I was relieved and tired and cold and just sat under a jacket which I had in my drop bag until our lift came. I nodded in and out of a strange sleep state and each time I opened my eyes, different people were in the check point aid station. After a race like this you get really disorientated with everything and time passes in very strange cycles. The bus eventually came along and took us to Paddington station where it was a quick train home and onto the holiday packing.
My original intentions had been to run this race entirely. Circumstances that led up to the night before the race meant my plans changed. That’s life. It was a bit of an odd one but proved to be very beneficial for me due to the fact that I had not finished the Thames Path three weeks earlier. Running the 100 miles at the Grand Union gave me my confidence in my hundred mile ability again and restored me to a much better place in my own mind. So it served its purpose. Will I be back to race one of these events – yes definitely! It was super well organised, very friendly and most of all you were well catered for as a runner, even though the event is kept simple and is extremely tough due to that. I am already thinking ahead to 2021 as there is a whole Grand Slam of these events consisting of three canal races. Certainly an idea! Happy miles everyone!