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….

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