Monday, July 3, 2017

Grand Union Canal Race - GUCR 2017 Race report


Taking part in this iconic British race has been three or four years in the making. I had been surfing the internet and came across a highly entertaining (and inspiring) account of James Adam’s race across America, from Los Angeles to New York. The GUCR had been his first major long ultra, and his review of it sparked a desire – as it has, apparently, with so many others – to compete in it. It wasn’t just the challenge of the distance – 145 miles, 233km – but also the low-key, almost tribal atmosphere that seemed to characterize this race.
But between right time, right mind-set, and a willingness to face my fears, take the plunge and commit to structured training for the first time ever (and more than I’d ever done), it took a while before I finally put my name in the hat. And it got pulled out!
I had just started a new job, and the more I thought about it, the more 233km just seem too daunting for me to tackle on my own. So, for the first time, I asked for professional help. I have my friend Anthony to thank for that. Actually, since I was working with Anthony when I first read James Adam’s blog, he has followed my wavering about the GUCR from the start – but he claims he always knew I would do it, and I believe him. In fact, I think that’s in some measure why I ended up signing up for it: Anthony helped me realize that I really did want to do it, and believe that I could.
So French running coach Bruno Heubi drafted a 20-week training plan starting in January Just over 5h/week at the beginning, ending with several weeks at 9-11h. I stuck to the program 97% (it’s not that I love numbers, but the plan was to run five days a week for 20 weeks, and I missed three days, so it’s quite easy to figure out) and arrived in Birmingham feeling ready. I have my amazing wife (and a lot of early morning runs) to thank for the fact that it didn’t put too much strain on family affairs.
And Anthony was there, which was a priceless boost. I have a hard time being away from the family for a race – the selfishness of it really get to me (though it does fade during the race, it can come back to haunt me if the going gets tough). We drove up together from London in his dad’s car (in horrendous traffic), registered at the Travelodge, ate a "last meal" at O’Neil’s pub (steak and ale pie!). Anthony and I marveled at the fact there we were here in Birmingham after more than three years talking about it, I pointed out a few GUCR hoodies and Spartathlon T-shirts worn by other running pub patrons also having their last meal (and, for many, pint). Then I tucked in for a relatively early night. My past 10 days or so of melatonin and homeopathic sleep spray worked its wonders and I had the best pre-race night’s sleep I’ve ever had.
I was running unsupported. Having flown over from Zurich, Anthony was mainly there for (absolutely essential) moral support, though he would supply me with water and some food items (English novelties for me) that were amazing in breaking the monotony of my own food. To tie me over between check points, I’d packed an assortment of gels, jellies, fruit purée, cheese and salami in seven plastic baggies that I could recover from my drop bag at each checkpoint. I was a bit wary of the salami sticks and Babybel cheese, since they’d been stuck in my bags the day before for a five-hour, traffic-laden trip from Heathrow to Birmingham in sweltering heat. But after the first few went down ok, with no stomach problems, I figured I was safe.

Birmingham to Heart of England Pub (53 miles/85km)
I’d broken the race into three parts, not only for strategic reasons but because I found it impossible to think of the full distance of 145 miles. The first would be to checkpoint 4 at mile 53 (km 85), Heart of England pub, slightly more than 1/3rd of the way, which I hoped to cover in about 10.5-11 hours; then Grand Junction Arms at the 100-mile (actually 99.8) mark (160km) in 23-25h; then I would have at least 20 hours to cover the last 45 miles. My idealistic A goal was sub-36, and that depended on arriving at Grand Junction in good form; the more realistic B goal was sub-40; and of course finishing was key, no matter what the time. I could not DNF this race.
The plan was to start out at about 8.4km/h, mixing in about a minute of walking every quarter hour, starting at hour 2, with only short breaks at the first three checkpoints, to end up with an average speed of just under 8km/h and arrive at this first milestone in about 10.5 hours. The problem is that I’d only realized a few days before that the course was in miles! These pacing numbers in miles meant nothing to me. Ok, I figured that 8.4km/h was 11:15-11:30 mn per mile, but once I factored in the walking and the breaks, I was lost! Well, I solved that by reverting to just checking average speed, since I knew 8km/h was 5mph, so anything above that in the first third good going. Once I’d managed that complex math problem, I called my wife to wish her a happy birthday and ensure that the flowers I’d ordered the day before had arrived (they had, definite brownie points).
The plan worked to a T, at first. After almost wandering off along another branch of the canal within the first few miles, I arrived at the first checkpoint at Catherine de Barnes (10.7 miles/17km) in two hours and just scoffed a few Jaffa cakes and refilled my water bottles before moving on. There were two sporadic rain showers, but I put away my waterproof jacket after the first one since I realized it wasn’t going to be a big deal and it was nice and warm out, with a breeze that made the heat bearable. I hit CP2 (22.5 miles/36km) at Hatton Locks at just around 10.30am, also right on schedule. Had a banana, orange squash (hmm, love being in a different country for a race, nice change of pace at the food stations), and then got really confused about the time, momentarily thinking my average pace (11:27/mile) was the time and wondering how I managed to be an hour behind schedule when my average speed was above 5 miles an hour. Oh, boy, less than 5 hours in and I can’t read my watch right (too much data and too many screens on my Garmin). I did remember to refill my water bottles, which was a good thing since in the entire race I only managed to spot one water tap – and my key wouldn’t work!
I was playing leapfrog with Jim, a friendly guy displaying an Australian flag on his backpack, who was suffering a bit from inflamed Achilles’ tendon. I left him at this point chatting with a friend he’d caught up with and moved on ahead. I also exchanged a few words with another runner, Simon, whom I’d cross paths with again later in the race. The big difference in this race compared to mountain runs is that because it is flat, everyone seemed to have a real pacing strategy, and since this entailed a bit of walking at different times, you never really ran alongside anyone for very long. Tends to cut conversations short, like “well, I had bloody awful weather at the CCC in 2010 and [beep, beep, Garmin watch alert] – oh, right off you go/ah, time for me to walk, catch up later...”
I was still pretty much on target when I arrived at Birdingbury Bridge (CP3, 36 miles, 58km), where I met up with Anthony for the first time. I enjoyed a bowl of beans for lunch and headed out after a bit of banter with a hot dog in hand. I also plugged into some music for the first time. I do that in spurts – sometimes it really boosts my mood, sometimes it takes my mind off things and sometimes it just gets annoying so I switch it off to enjoy the relative silence… In this case, I went through a real “purple spot” where I had to rein in my enthusiasm not to start running too fast and the music provided the perfect backdrop. The sun was shining, the route along the canal was as picturesque as I had imagined, and I ambled along like that for a while, trying to remember to put in some marching minutes to save energy for later. It was at that point I remembered a passage from James Adam’s book, Running and Stuff, where he describes his start at his first Spartathlon, when other competitors who had run it before treated him a bit like a happy Labrador who has no idea the walk in the woods is actually a trip to the vet. I wondered if that wasn’t what was going on now: I’m having my bouncy Labrador moment, just before the shit hits the fan.

Yes, that's a hill!
Well, the shit didn’t exactly hit the fan but obviously the moment wasn’t going to last. Before Braunston Locks my running pace slowed slightly and I started to walk a minute every 9 instead of 14. I’d planned that in any case after CP4 and figured this could happen before, but this was still earlier than expected. I was slowed even further when we hit the only hill on the course around mile 44 as we leave the canal for the only significant time– and it felt like one, though the picture hardly shows any incline!
My morale sank a bit. But then at the bottom of the hill, I saw Anthony next to his car, which was a welcome sight! I sat down for 5mn and unloaded some unneeded gear from my backpack. I also gave up my front water bottles which were bruising my ribs – that never happened even during 42 hours at the Swiss Irontrail, but I suppose there’s another difference about running on an almost consistently flat surface. I would rely only my back water pouch, hoping that would be enough to see between checkpoints. Anthony gave me a Monster energy drink and chilled coffee. It seemed a bit early (about 3pm) for caffeine, but what the hell, I needed a boost. It worked too: I headed off in better spirits, walked some more uphill along a road for a quarter of a mile, before heading back into the forest and the security of the canal. In hindsight, I should have appreciated this escape beyond the canal limits more, since by the following morning I would sometimes feel trapped by the high bushes and trees that lined the canal and made it impossible to see anything of the outside world. Everything was restricted to water, barges and locks. Always beautiful, but sometimes I felt like I was running in circles along the same track…
I made it to CP4 at Heart of England (53 miles, 85km) around 5pm, so at the slower end of my schedule but still moving at just under 8km/h (4.8mph) with walking breaks every 10mn. I spent almost half-hour here – I had planned a longer rest, to get my stuff sorted (and pierce a blister that had appeared on the middle left toe), drink some tea, eat some canned fruit (mmm, another delicious novelty I wish they could import to races in Switzerland and France), tomatoes and a few other things that would make my eyes light up (if it looks good, my body must need it). I changed my socks and off I went, calling my wife for the second time that day (it was, after all, her birthday!).
Heart of England Pub to Grand Junction Arms (100 miles/160km)
The wheels came off a little sooner than expected. I was still feeling ok and morale was high, but I just couldn’t manage so much running, so I was soon at 8mn run/2mn walk and then even 7/3, and my pace was slipping towards 4.5mph. But the running pace was rather consistent, and the walk was brisk, and mainly I still felt good, so I wasn’t too bothered.
Suddenly my phone beeps – i pull it out of my waist pack and read a text from Anthony, “Drinking a pint with James Adams”. Go figure. I was only about 20-30mn out, but I never did actually get the opportunity to say thanks to James in person for introducing me to this incredible race. I realize now that as much as his and others’ race reviews attempt to convey the special atmosphere of this race, it still impossible to grasp what exactly sets it apart. I can’t explain it either. There’s just something about it…
Anyway. I reached CP5 at Navigation Bridge (70.5 miles, 113km) on schedule (more or less at this point) around 9.45pm. The checkpoint was on a bridge we had to cross over, under a dark tarpaulin with almost no lighting. I didn’t mind much, I just huddled in a far corner to keep out of the breeze that was chilling me now that night had fallen. A kind volunteer immediately brought my drop bag, then tea, porridge and a bunch of other food items I now forget. I used my headlamp to fish out a new food baggie of my own for the next leg, my vest and sleeves from the drop bag.
With my stuff sorted, I was ready to go within 15mn so I was pleased. I’d been hearing Anthony’s voice for a while and had called a few times with no response, and it was only when I crossed the road to meet up with him that I remembered that only volunteers and runners are allowed at the checkpoint at Navigation Bridge, everyone else has to stay on the other side, mainly inside the pub, completely taken over by crew, great atmosphere.
Anthony and I went inside – not sure what the original reason was, I think he wanted to give me more coffee, but I’d taken a caffeine pill (made in USA, a blue thing that looked like Viagra and was probably nearly as strong, not that I’ve taken Viagra though someone did try to get me to take it at Burning Man – funny when I think about all the stuff I did take back then but it’s Viagra that had me worried – that was in 2002, by the way… Anyway, I digress). So I was good, but think I drank a very tasty iced coffee anyway.
I also checked the blister on my middle left toe, and it didn’t look good (but didn’t feel bad either, so no worries). Another had formed. I couldn’t find my lighter so I just popped it with the safety pin without disinfecting it and luckily that didn’t come back and haunt me later. Anthony cobbled some form of taping for it, and I was done – now my turn to apologize to the pub patrons sitting right next to me for the gruesome sight.
Spent an additional 10-15mn but it was definitely worth it. I headed off into the night with the usual chills coming out of the pub. I almost went the wrong way following a runner who was actually going to the car park to meet up with his crew. I had momentarily forgotten that I was supposed to be following a canal... I soon got back on track and within about 15mn was warm enough to take off the jacket.
Shortly afterwards, a guy running in the opposite direction quickly informed me that there was a competitor sleeping by the towpath and not to wake her up. I came across her about five minutes later and I’m glad he warned me, but I did wonder why he hadn’t stayed with her or put up a “do not disturb sign” (though how he could have done that, I don’t know – maybe that’s why he was running back to Navigation Bridge; at that point my functioning brain cells were mainly involved in anything immediately race-related), because if he hadn’t warned me I would in all good conscience have had to stop and see at least if she was breathing ok.
It was pitch black beyond my headlamp spotlight, and time started to dilate. I enjoy night running in that respect, my whole relationship with the race experience shifts, becomes internalized. You find yourself alone with your thoughts, dreams and demons – ooh, and that’s when the shit really hit the fan. Shortly after Milton Keynes, my legs suddenly screamed at me. I had bad flashbacks to the Ultra Tour de Léman where I just ground to a halt after about 130km, and this was just about the same distance. Back then in September, I just couldn’t face another 45km. Here I had another 100! But Anthony had given up his weekend for me, I’d woken up too early on too many mornings for this race, imagined it on and off for several years, I’d travelled from Switzerland to compete in it, so I put myself in solution mode, which I’d failed to do at the UTL , and avoided coming up with very good reasons why I couldn’t continue. Also, since the fact that the race fell on my wife's birthday had escaped my attention when submitting my application, my wife had said that if I didn't come home with a medal, I'd find my bags packed on the doorstep... She was joking, of course, but jokes always from somewhere...
So as soon as I came across a break in the hedges and undergrowth lining the towpath that opened onto a small park, I found a friendly tree to put my legs up against to hopefully relieve some of the fatigue. At least, that was the plan. My quads were so tight I couldn’t crouch. Hmm. I did actually stop to ponder how I was going to get from standing up to lying down. Finally I just sort of flopped down sideways, then edged up to the tree so I could elevate my legs. I set my timer for 10mn just in case I fell asleep – but I needn’t have worried with all the caffeine. However, I did start shivering now that I wasn’t moving. Bother!, so I had to remove my windbreaker from my backpack which was making a nice pillow. I got bored after about 5mn and something did the trick. Once I managed to get up (imagine a beetle or a turtle on its back trying to right itself), I ambled off in a little less pain and slightly more confident. I think mainly that I found the whole episode – thankfully not witnessed by anyone – so silly but so much part of what I love about ultra running, that amusement overcame any possible sense of despondency. I even managed to keep up something close to a 7 km/h (4.3mp) pace; less than originally planned but I was good with that.
I arrived at Water Eaton, checkpoint 6, at about 2am, so already nearly 1h30mn off schedule, but the schedule was for an ambitious 36-hour finish and at this point I was going for “best effort”. I spent about 20mn gathering my wits, chatted with a Belgium guy  who was on his 6th participation and hoping for a 3rd finish, and with another great volunteer who reeled off a list of things I might like to eat like I was at a five-star restaurant. He lived in Leighton Buzzard but originally from Brazil, which I’m glad he specified because I was beginning to think that the local accent was quite exotic, even to my Swiss ears. Anyway, five-star service it was, more tasty food and drink (coffee, tea,…), and, yes, I’ll admit, a pill of pain relief. Finally I got moving, just after Simon came plodding in, looking about as fresh as I felt.
After that it’s something of a blur until Grand Junction Arms. But a good blur. The legs stopped whining and started cooperating again. My pace didn’t change much, but at least it was done in quite high spirits. Made even higher by meeting up with Anthony outside Tesco at Leighton Buzzard around 3am. Not sure when that man slept, but what a rock! He also gave me some more delicious morsels to eat and topped up my water, and just a good energizing chat. I had a middle-of-the-night constitutional, and found to my relief that I could squat and lift off again (and all the duties in between) without too much difficulty. I really don’t understand how the body can feel like it’s about to give up – and then instead of getting worse, things get better. Then again, I don’t understand how my phone, computer, TV work, and I don’t let that bother me either - so not letting things that you don't understand bother you is apparently the way to finish an ultra...
I snapped a picture of myself an hour or so passed dawn, knowing that I would finally complete 100 miles on foot for the first time in 17 years. And I remembered that picture I took in November 2000 at the Jordan Desert Cup when I passed, at dawn, the 100km mark for the first time in my life. It was harder back then to get a good selfie with a disposable 35mm film camera.

Shortly afterwards, fatigue hit me like a brick. Some runners feel new energy with dawn – not me. It’s like my body saying, “ok that’s it, you’ve done dinner, pub, night club and after-party – time to go to bed”. I started weaving, barely able to keep my eyes open. Then I saw a bench. Very inviting bench in an absolutely stunning location next to a lock. I set my alarm for 10mn and laid down using my backpack as a pillow. Bliss…
I was up before the alarm went off and after a few seconds trying to catch my bearings, I was off feeling incredibly refreshed. Well, that might be an exaggeration. Let’s just say that the nap had the effect of an on-off switch and the desire to sleep was gone, which really is the best I can ask for.

Around 7am I stumbled into Grand Junction Arms, the most picturesque check point I have ever had the pleasure of stumbling into. This, and the fact of feeling surprisingly rested and reaching 100 miles feeling good might explain why I gave everyone a hearty “good morning”, because it really did feel like one. I know, Grand Junction Arms is not really at 100 miles, but whatever. I still felt very proud, and I’ll take that any day over dark thoughts and moping.

Grand Junction Arms to Little Venice (145 miles/233km – FINISH!)
Anthony was there, really not showing any signs of fatigue, bloody amazing. I changed shirts, ate some porridge and pretty much whatever I could reach on the table in front of me without getting out of my chair (hmm, canned tangerines, another delight), once again the recipient of some amazing volunteer care and attention. (Next time, if there’s a next time, I should remember to at least ask their names.)

I took off after about a 30mn break, ready to tackle the long 32km stretch till the next checkpoint. But very quickly I felt a distinct sense of unease. At this point, with almost 20 hours to cover the last 45 miles and no particular ailments to complain about, I knew I should be able to finish - I did get some faint nausea on two occasions but crystallised ginger worked wonders... However, despite being within my predictions for a sub-40h finish and pretty much hoping to be in the state I was in at this point, now that I’d reached Grand Junction Arms, I definitely didn’t feel like the race was in the bag. 70km is still a long way to go, and it was conceivable that something could happen that would make even plodding it in impossible. Not to mention that my legs were definitely exhausted, my feet were hurting, and I knew that nearly two marathons in this state was going to be like a very long session with my boss: informative and always a learning process, sometimes even empowering, but mainly painful. I really had to take it one moment at a time and not think of the whole distance left to cover.
The scenery helped. I gingerly avoided a swan, having read reports about people getting pecked at. I marveled on two separate occasions at a heron taking off from the side of the towpath as I approached (definitely less aggressive than the swans), gliding with jealousy-inducing ease over the water to the other side. I stopped for an ice-cream at a boat rental place – unbelievable! I had been very upset at not seeing the candy boat I’d read so much about in other reviews, so when I spotted the ice cream sales sign, I didn’t hesitate. I’d carried a few heavy British pound coins just for this.
The sun was shining bright in a California blue sky, and though it was not only warm but also humid, I preferred that to rain. Compared to the previous day, there was also a lot more life on the towpath. Yesterday was all about the boats drifting down the canal – families, boy scouts, couples – or beer-drinking and barbeques on parked boats. On Sunday, there were cyclists, joggers (please notice my race bib as you rush past!) and families out for a stroll on the path. A lot more life, but not always very relaxing, especially with the bikes.

It was around this time that I started to feel trapped. As beautiful as the scenery was, the sides of the canal were often bordered by high trees or, even more tantalizing, hedges that reached just high enough to prevent me from seeing any of the surrounding landscape. I welcomed a break in the hedges, locks that opened up the view to rolling, sheep-filled pastures as much as a maximum-security prisoner enjoys his hour stroll in the prison yard.
I was slowing down too. Running was rare and in spurts, and my walking pace was almost a plod. I tried listening to music but, as often when I am in this state, I would aggravate me more than take my mind off things. But I think that having realized at Grand Junction Arms that the race was far from over enabled me to stave off any downward spiraling negativity. I started doing some pacing math, which usually is a bad idea but in this case helped. I figured that if I could maintain a pace of 3.3mph/5.2kph, I could finish under 40 hours.
That became my goal and I started speeding up and immediately felt better. What also helped was that I had been slowly moving up in the “rankings”. I knew I had been passing other participants, and hadn’t been passed by anyone since Leighton Buzzard, but I hadn’t realized quite how well I’d been doing. It’s not the competition aspect of gaining places that buoyed my spirits so much as the fact that, after 17 years of ultra-running, I’d finally not gone out too fast and was now reaping the benefits. So apparently as slow as I felt I was plodding on, everyone else was in the same boat.

Anthony met me near Berkamsted Bridge, which was a huge welcome break to the long stretch between checkpoints. With each step and I could taste that medal, I just wished I could move faster...
  • Arrived at Springwell Lock somewhere between 1-2pm; in any case still on target for sub-40h.
  • Anthony’s dad had joined him on this lark, taking the dog out for a Sunday stroll. Possibly the strangest way to meet a friend’s parent, but he took it all in stride. It was nice to have some company for a few hundred yards, which Anthony and his dad did on a couple of occasions after Springwell Lock.
  • Changed shirts again.
  • A few chafing issues difficult to resolve with additional cream and there was no area to hide decently. I dealt with that after leaving the check point as soon as I found a secluded spot. Difficult with all the Sunday public on bank holiday weekend.
  • Ate an amazing bacon, baked beans and egg sandwich. That’s why I came to England to do an ultra. Sadly, I sort of stalled before the end and had to toss away about a quarter, to the utter dismay of the kind volunteer who had made it for me.
  • Tried another catnap after Springwell Lock, but got interrupted by a woman on a barge asking me if I was alright. I said yes, just tired, been running/walking a long time. “Yes, from Birmingham, right? Been seeing you guys go by all day”. Well, if you know, why did you wake me up?! She was very kind otherwise. So was her husband, originally from New York, who appeared extremely pleased about his life on an English canal boat far from Manhattan. Who could blame him?
And so still managing what I felt was a pretty decent walking pace with some sporadic running, I made it to the left-hand canal turn and the GUCR famous sign-post “Paddington, 131/2 miles”. I didn’t visibly weep, but tears were flowing inside. Finally all the fear of not finishing vanished. My feet to my shins hurt like hell at every step (I could no longer feel my quads) and I just wanted to end. I wanted the medal and the finish, but I couldn’t contemplate the prospect of the next 3-4 hours of pain that the finish required. I kept having to tell that of me to shut up and let me get on with it.
Soon after the turn and just before the final checkpoint at Harborough Tavern – under a graffitied bridge vaguely smelling of urine – the volunteers are saints – I am welcomed by a man who I’d seen at various moments since the very first checkpoint. Wearing the same clothes, which evidently meant he’d been following the race without sleep just to help man the checkpoints and encourage everyone along. God bless him. He asks me if I’m ok, and I just break out in a huge grin – hurting, sure, but fuck I’m going to finish, how can I not feel great! He walked me into the checkpoint as we chatted, and I asked if he’d done the race. “A few times”, he says modestly. “What’s your name?” I ask, finally remembering social niceties. “Pat,” he says. I guess I had a few brain cells left, because I realized it was Pat Robbins, who’s won the GUCR several times and held the course record until last year. I asked him how he was able to run it so fast, and he just modestly responded that he didn’t know how the guys winning last year and this year are able to do it in under 24h or thereabouts. Well, yes, I guess we all have our own reference points. Anyway, I promised him I wouldn’t blab about this incredible race so that it doesn’t get run over by foreigners, but I have been unable to keep my mouth shut. But no worries, it’s not like I have a huge fan following.
So that’s about it. It started pouring down just as I got to the checkpoint, and I’d put my rain jacket in my dropbag (“ah, I’m done, let’s pack everything away!”) and there’s no dropbag at the last checkpoint. But incredible and resourceful Sandhurst-graduate Anthony met up with me with a cut-out garbage bag, which tied me over perfectly until the sun came out again not long after. I said goodbye to Anthony, since he had to return to his dad’s place before flying out the next morning for work in Paris. Difficult to express the depth of my gratitude at that moment. For sure we’d shared an incredible experience, and not sure I would have made it without his unfailing presence. Or if I had, it would have been with far darker moments and doubts. We did this race together.

Shortly after leaving the checkpoint, I was caught up with Simon! Aside from one half-hearted attempt to jog, we basically just walked as best we could. Didn’t even feel like a death march because I did feel like I was giving it all at that point just to put one foot in front of the other. And so we chatted for over three hours, about our respective experiences over the previous 36 hours, past and future races, home life, and other stuff.
And then Little Venice came into view. Finally, the FINISH! 39h23mn, and a medal that completely lived up to expectations. After that... Well, I succeeded so well in splitting the race up into smaller chunks that I still can't wrap my head around the full number of 145 miles, 233km. I love it!

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