Why?

Since GUCR last weekend i’m still getting asked the age old question by friends and work colleagues about my running and in particular, ultras. Why?. Why do you do it? Why put yourself through that? Why bother? Why not just put your feet up?

Those that know me well enough know I pulled on my running shoes again 5 years ago after three lifelong friends passed away in the space of 5 months. A hard, difficult and emotional time. Trying to make sense of life’s cruel ways. I dealt with it through running, running harder and faster the feelings of guilt and remorse replaced by exhaustion and burning lungs. It took many months to feel better but grief was replaced with an acute sense of life’s finite value. I don’t want to have regrets, wishing I had at least attempted various things. I’m not saying anyone should bankrupt themselves to achieve a life event, but, within your means, do as much as you are possibly able. Take that course you’ve wanted to do. Learn that language, trade, skill. Save for that dream holiday. Get in touch with that long lost friend or relative. Start painting or taking photos or walking…or even running. Whatever the thing is. Do it. Now. Today. Immediately. Don’t put it off. Wonder what an ultra is like? Sign up, train up and turn up. My three friends (Andy 34, Darren 36 and Charlie 42) never had their tomorrow to achieve their hopes and aspirations. You do! I do. So when I am in the midst of a tough ultra, hurting in a darkened corner of my mind I am grateful for those sensations and emotions because they are instantly reminding me I have the good fortune to be alive as they do not. And I get myself together and move onwards.

 

That is why.

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Grand Union Canal Race 2017 – Part two

…Arriving into CP5, 70 miles in Mike had me sit down. He had bought an ankle support and had a hot meal of chilli con carne ready for me too. Ed Jones was also waiting having made his way along the canal from Wolverton. Another bag of snacks, raisins, jaffa cakes, tribe bar, grapes and a top up of Tailwind. Gasping for a refreshing drink Ed did me a favour and bought me a bitter shandy. I changed into my night kit of a baselayer, t shirt and Rab hoodie over the top also taking my lightweight Salomon jacket too. Roughly 15 miles to the next checkpoint and Ed with me things should be ok. I just needed to try and jog while dealing with the ankle pain. Another coffee and it was time to get cracking. Initially off to a good start i had to take a walking break, interspersed with the odd squat to stretch out the thighs. Ed was doing a good job of keeping my mind occupied and helping the miles pass. At the next checkpoint I was looking forward to meeting Rodrigo Freeman, he ran and finished GUCR last year but some how amongst all the buzz we wasn’t acquainted at that time. It was only when I saw an article in a work publication that I then realised that Rod worked in the same industry as myself and got in touch with him online, which is how he then told me he would be at the Bletchley, 85 mile checkpoint. There are no particular difficulties along this stretch, no tunnels, no junctions or diversions. It’s just a matter of getting into a mentally comfortable spot to jog on. The problem was that time and distance seemed huge. I’d get into a jog, keep going for a period of time that felt like i’d maybe covered another mile, maybe 10 or 12 minutes and actually i’d only made 0.3 of a mile!!

Ed had me do a mental task of giving one life event for every year of my life, which all though my brain was dead tired and starting to feel scrambled already, was enough to keep it awake and enough to keep the time and distance passing. Ever so slowly now the miles were passing by but thus far I had suffered no cramp and no sickness that some other runners are often struck down with. I arrived into the Bletchley checkpoint 6, 85 miles at 02.00am now 3 hours off the plan but 2 hours 10 minutes ahead of my 2016 effort and still well inside the cut off times and above the average speed needed to finish. I said hello to Rod then crashed into my chair while Mike went about giving me food and drink and checking things were ok, in hindsight it’s bit of a blur but after a short while we moved on. I doubled back briefly remembering something I wanted and was also given a ginger beer by Rod, tasty, easy to drink and more needed calories. Never refuse anything you can manage to get in to your system. Another 15 mile stretch to the 100 mile mark, CP7, by many seen as the true halfway point of the race. The last 45 feeling just as hard as the first 100. I was beginning to get bad heartburn from the dinner I had eaten plus everything I was consuming on top. The only thing I could do was drink some water every time it happened. with painkillers and endorphin’s the ankle was holding up enough to keep moving at a decent speed.

Milton Keynes was uneventful this time around, last year getting some abuse and being followed was a good incentive to get a move on. The pace was beginning to drop with large periods of speed walking mixed with some feeble efforts to jog. Long into the night I was awaiting the sight of breaking daylight to both try and wake up and lift my spirits. With runners well spread out at this point the canal seemed like an empty place to be. I knew the group I wanted to be in contact with were a good couple of hours ahead by now. In races, especially ultras it is always good to have someone in view, even if it is a mile away as it gives an extra incentive to push on and see if you can catch them. At this point with no one about it was get to the next boat or get to the next bridge. one foot in front of the other. after 5 1/2 hours of trudging, jogging and limping through the night I ran into CP7, 99 miles at the Grand Junction Arms at 07.15am. I was 2 1/2 hours quicker at this point than last year and still moving quicke enough to stay above the average speed and stay inside the cut offs. Last year the 100 to 120 section was where I lost the race. It killed me and I was unable to manage the aches, pain and tiredness, gave in and stopped far too often. This is where the race really started and It hadn’t been a smooth ride so far with a bruised ankle. Sausage and beans for breakfast, fruit pot, coffee and a banana and it was time to head off into the early morning.

It was already very warm. I had been drinking a lot and always make sure I use an electrolyte based drink or eat food often to avoid hyponatremia. Ed said he’d see me through to Tring which was only a mile or two after the checkpoint so i’d be on my own again until I caught up with Adrian Eeles. My cousin had said he’d also try and meet me in the Hemel Hempstead area too. I forged on very mindful that this section was my nemesis from last year and was determined to get through without giving into the tiredness. Nearly two hours later I saw my cousin and we power walked together having a catch about our families, as we neared Fishery road there is a river side cafe so he went and got me a can of coke which was a welcome boost. I left my cousin at this point and carried on not knowing where Adrian would be and fortunately not much further on he appeared on the canal. Great to have another companion to occupy the mind and not allow me to stop and crumble to the ever increasing tiredness. Through the night I had made do with coffees and buzz gum, a caffeinated guarana gum and had also taken a couple of pro plus. I probably could have taken more or a larger dose as it was barely taking the edge off the tiredness but having not experimented much I didn’t want to end up making things worse by ingesting too much caffeine. Again with Adrian we had the odd short jog..boat to boat, some power walking then jog to a bridge etc. Just keep ticking off the miles. I wasn’t thinking of anything beyond 120 miles at this point. If I made it there i’d cracked it, I would be a finisher. mile after stifling mile Adrian chatted and took my mind of the never ending 20 mile section. dousing with water and keeping cool as possible. slowly, wearily and painfully we headed on to Springwell lock CP8, 120 miles arriving just before 15.00pm, 3 hours 20 minutes ahead of last year! although this year was feeling way harder and more painful timing was still good. i had another surprise visitor at this point as a club friend Iain had turned up which was a welcome distraction. Another seat, more food and drink and it was time to go again. I was feeling in good spirits at this point knowing I had overcome the problems of last year and less than a marathon to go! 13 miles to CP9 Hamborough Arms and then the final 12.

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I left Springwell feeling pretty good if still in a degree of pain. I can’t remember at what point Adrian left me but it was during this next section. Sn enough I would be back to my own motivation with no safety net should I crack and give in to feelings or emotions. I was determined to make a good effort here as last year I arrived at Bulls Bridge around 23.45 in darkness. Not this year. During the trudge along the canal I remember seeing Jon Aston who looked quite pained and also Neil Carter who was trotting along quite comfortably. After having done a 20 mile slog the 13 miles should breeze by. they didn’t. Again any effort to jog soon ground to a halt only having covered .25 or .3 of a mile. Fine. Walk a bit and then do another .25 stint. so on so forth. I was starting to get concerned that my average speed had dropped to 4mph, above the 3.3 needed but an obvious sign that checkpoints, stopping to stretch and the slower walking efforts were all eating away at my time. If I really could only walk it had to be a purposeful power walk, at least 4mph to keep the average up. I recognised bridges and areas from last year and once I could see and hear the train line I knew I was getting close, probably 4 or 5 miles, and this spurred me on. And finally, still in daylight, Bulls Bridge. Another mile and the final checkpoint would be in front of me. I was feeling the excruciating tiredness as I had last year, I couldn’t think properly and even conversation was an effort. I pushed on to CP9, 133 miles, arriving at 19.30pm, 4 1/2 hours ahead of last year. Still 8 1/2 hours on the clock to cover 12 miles. Pat ‘Paddy’ Robbins was at the checkpoint but I couldn’t even be bothered to speak. Mike fixed me up, I felt dire. New larger sized shoes to allow for the swollen feet. The only thing that could stop me now would be and accident caused by tiredness or my own mind.

Leaving the checkpoint on Mike’s words of 2 10k’s to go, usually 1 h 30m I dragged myself off. He was planning on meeting me at a bridge about midway to help break it down. But not having gt this far last year it was all new and I couldn’t judge where I was and how far I had to go. Such immense tiredness, i’d veer to left, then fight to straighten up and avoid a dip in the canal, then veer back to the right and crash on top of a concrete bench. No, it’s not happening again! Count to 10, I know Mike’s watching on the tracker and the phone will go. Get up, forge on, can I jog, no, shuffle on. A text, not far from the bridge now, keep moving. A light ahead. It’s not getting closer. Eventually Mike was there again. 21.50pm. 10k had taken me just over 2 hours. A few more encouraging words and the final 6 mile push lay ahead. setting off my head was just wanting me to lay down and give in to the painful desire to sleep, the legs were painful but it’s a finite amount, the pain had peaked hours ago, it was just a matter of managing and digging deep to keep going. 4 pieces of the buzz gum and within a mile the edge had been taken off the sensation, I power walked on knowing I was so close now. My Garmin had died at CP9 so I had no idea again of time or distance. A text. 2 miles to go. Don’t go for it yet, I didn’t have the energy to last 2 miles all out running. power walk onwards. text. 3/4 mile to go. Go for it! I dug in, gave it every bit of final energy, ignored any of the wincing pain from my legs and ran all the way into the finish.

At last I was Grand Union Canal Race finisher!! crossing the line at 23.48pm, 41h 48m.

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Still some lessons to be learned as to footwear, socks and some food items. It was a shame about the ankle holding me back but then some people would have stopped all together! Now to sit back, recover and on to the next race, supposedly on the 10th June if i’m fit enough.

 

Grand Union Canal Race 2017 – Part One

I was struggling badly, such excruciating sleep deprivation. Something I need to learn how to cope with. I was on the approach to CP9 and the time was evaporating fast! I shuffled into the checkpoint at 23.58.41….the cut off was 00.00. My GUCR 2016 was over.

In the week following it was a given I was going to apply for the following year so I could rectify my mistakes and make it to the end. My friend and ultra runner who finished GUCR in 2016, Mike Abel, made a remark that he would crew me in 2017 if I got in. So when the entries opened I had the form filled in and sent back within about a minute! I hadn’t realised at the time but the first 15 applications were given automatic entry to the 3 race canalslam series. I had thought it was the first 15 drawn from the ballot so went along to the draw meeting Gin Lawson and Mark Haynes only then to be told by Keith about the automatic entry. Soon after I then contacted Mike to see if he was still willing to crew as he had said. Thankfully he said he’d change some of his plans and help me out. My cousin said he would drive for us so Mike could buddy run.

I continued through 2016 injury free and mainly running marathons, half marathons, club events and small ultras like the Stort 30. Heading into 2017 I wanted to up my training and races. In 2016 heading towards GUCR I had only done 2 half marathons, 1 marathon and a 40 mile training run…and made it to 133 miles. In 2017 I ran 4 ultras, 4 marathons, 2 x 10ks plus the training runs in between. I was happy for how most of them panned out and began to write up a pacing plan based on those race times. The aim became a 35 hour plan with the realistic view this could slip to 36 or 37 hours depending on weather, injury and tiredness.

As we got closer to GUCR coming around my cousin announced he’d booked a holiday over GUCR weekend..I was pissed off to say the least. There was nothing that could be done so started asking around for someone to step in. Mike said worst case scenario he would still drive so all was not completely lost but still a major spanner in the works. In the last couple of weeks before GUCR Ed Jones who was a finisher in 2016 said he could step in to buddy run from the Wolverton area and Adrian Eeles, an online Twitter acquaintance said he would be able to buddy run from the Hemel Hemstead area. A load of kit and food shopping and I was finally feeling ready.

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On the Friday I drove over to Mike’s to get him, checked we had everything and set off to Birmingham. The drive to his had been twice as long as it should have been due to an accident and the continuing journey to Birmingham was just as bad but we finally arrived, parked and checked in around 17.00pm meeting Nathan Taylor in the foyer. Then soon after down to registration where the weekend buzz begins to kick in, meeting friends, acquaintances and familiar faces exchanging stories, training progress and expectations for the weekend. Always a fun and exciting part of race is meeting like minded people that are on your wavelength and being able to glean information and tips from people is all part of the ultra running learning curve. I have massive respect and admiration for these people, some of whom I’m fortunate to be able to call friends. Theses are my people, sporting legends in the ultra community and unsung warriors that most people wouldn’t know. Off to O’neills pub for dinner and a few nerve calming drinks, more meet ups and chat with the likes of Michelle Payne, Colin Barnes and paul Ali before heading to bed for a 04.50am alarm.

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Race day. Breakfast eaten, kit on and a bit of limbering up and it was time to head down to the start. check in. A bit off chat and trying not to think about the monumental task that lay ahead of us all. The weather was looking to be hot and humid, nothing to be done but deal with it as best as possible. We made our way off of Gas Street onto the canal basin and after a few words form Dick Kearn we were off. I set off at a comfortable pace around 9 minute miles soon making sure I slowed a little to 9.30 a mile, CP1 lay 11 miles away.I was instantly feeling the humidity and the only way to really cope was to drink and douse my head and shoulders with water, a shower started in the early stages and helped cool the air but it was fairly short lived. I didn’t use the maps at all during the run and did as last year using a crib sheet with water points, checkpoints and any bridge crossings or junctions noted. I was planning on using every water point available, this didn’t happen overall as some of them were hard to spot or plain missed as I probably had my head down. Stopping at an early water/toilet point I saw Wendy Shaw and Jaime Russell who were both looking strong. I had been cat and mouse over the early miles with Cat Simpson who I think most people had as the favourite to be first female. At mile ten she suddenly took off and I never saw her again! I arrived a t CP1 at 7.44 am..bang on my plan to the minute. Trouble was I should have met Mike at a bridge by now and hadn’t seen him, after a quick call he arranged to meat me closer to Knowle locks. I topped up on some drink and some people, probably friends of other runners gave me a fun size milky way to see me along. I continued on eventually meeting up with Mike, topping up drink and collecting my pre packed bag of food which had grapes, biscuits and raisins and continued on. I was still keeping a 9.30 a mile, the sun was up and it was already getting hot. Thankfully everything else was good. I was in the rough area of other friends at this point, Paul Mason, ian Brazier and Paul Adams. I had been texting Mike on the approach to let him know what I was wanting and asked for an ice lolly..but he was a touch further along from the shop already. So I made my own pit stop in the shop..well worth it!! More drink, another bag of food this one containing a porridge mix with waxy maize starch and protein powder as well as the biscuits and other pieces, some more encouragement from Mike and I was on the way again. CP3 Birdingbury bridge is about a 14.5 mile section. I was really feeling the heat and burning up badly but I was mindful of last year and wanted to make good time to CP5 Navigation Inn hoping to arrive somewhere between 19.30 and 20.00. So I pushed onwards, eating, drinking and trying to stay relaxed. I had forgotten how stony and muddy a lot of the path was and made sure I was lifting my feet enough so I didn’t stub my foot and trip. I think it may have been this stretch that I saw Michelle Payne, she’d run into abridge and busted her nose badly. Her crew had cleaned her up but Michelle being as tough as she is was carrying on and soon went ahead of me. I arrived at CP3 just after midday, about an hour ahead of last years time. As expected at the 36 mile point the aches and pains had started but nothing that wasn’t bearable or manageable. On to CP4 at Weedon. Still back and forth with a number of runners apart from dying in the heat nothing that notable happened along this stretch and I arrived at CP4 somewhere around the 16.25 mark, slightly off my plan but 1 hour ahead of last year so I was still looking ok. Another top up of water and food and I was on my way again to CP5 Navigation Inn, the point that is just shy of the half way point so great incentive to get on and finally feel that you’re getting somewhere. the path was still rough in parts. Then somewhere around mile 56 /57 I turned my ankle quite sharply, gave it a moment and assessed it. It felt like i’d had a lucky escape and could run ok so carried. Within 2 miles I turned the same ankle sharply again! this time it was really painful and obvious i’d damaged it. I tried to run on but this time I couldn’t, every step was sharply painful so I walked for  a while wondering what was best to do. Again i tried to run and found if I stayed as flat footed as possible I could get some momentum going, any flexing of the foot just caused immense sharp pain. I put in a call to mike to let him know he needed to get out to me and strap the ankle and agreed he’d meet me at the parking point at the top of the slope leading off the canal path to get up and over Blisworth Tunnel. I started to lose time being down to around 14/15 minute miles and had some time out once meeting Mike to have the ankle strapped and taking some pain killers. I got on my way again following the road way that is undulating and heads up and over the tunnel, onto the track way and back down onto the towpath. the ankle was still fairly sore but began to ease a little as the painkillers did there job. I knew I wasn’t that far now from Navigation Inn and wanted to get there in daylight and although off my plan still be ahead of last year. As the canal wound it’s way I was waiting for the sight of the pub lights to come in to view..and eventually it was before me and ran into the checkpoint at 21.45. I was pretty disappointed as I was now 1 hour 45 minutes off my plan and only 40 minutes ahead of last years time at this point. If the second half went as badly as last year it could all be over again….