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Monday
Jun232008

Grand Union Canal Race Report (Long Version)

I have thought about finishing this race for well over a year now. It has been the single biggest thing on my mind since I decided I was going to do this. In all the previous training runs and races I thought about the moment I’d cross the line. It always made me feel better.

I thought about it when justifying what I had to do to get there. The time and cost, drifting away from some friends, stalling career and a failed relationship. The glow I got from just thinking about finishing this made it all seem worth it. I truly hope that some time on Sunday those sacrifices would be justified.

Birmingham

The alarm woke me up at 4am. I hit snooze and closed my eyes. Then, in an unexpected moment of clarity so early in the morning I thought what difference is another 9 minutes sleep going to make to what I have planned today? Arriving at the answer pretty quickly I jumped out of bed and staggered for the light.

Maypole in Birmingham is a strange place to put a Travelodge. I can’t imagine anyone having any real reason to come here, except of course for one day of the year where the car park fills with very sedate looking men in full running/hiking gear and some equally nervous family members organising stacks of food big enough to feed the whole family for a week.

Gas Street Basin

I knew what the start looked like from the videos and photos online. When I first got there is was quite empty which felt strange. All the runners had spilled onto a nearby street, almost as if they were waiting for a coach to collect them. All were talking with quiet confidence about running this race. All were set on finishing but in reality less than half will. It doesn’t seem to dampen any spirits though, everyone I’m sure were looking forward to the start in their own way. I was.

The horn sounded soon after we all decided to huddle together by the side of the canal. It was a very civilised and English start: “after you sir, no please I insist”. Much more respect and decorum than in other races where there is a melee at the start for the sake of gaining a few yards. A few yards don’t really matter here, not in a race that I’ll still be running this time tomorrow. I was in it now.

I’d not let myself think about running this race until I was actually doing it since all I all I wanted to think about was finishing. For as long as possible I just imagined what I would feel like when I crossed the line and only now did I start to really think about the 30 odd hour slog to get there.

I tried to resist any attempts to draw me in to thinking about it. This explains why I was quite indifferent in a meeting I had with my support crew a week earlier to discuss practicalities. I didn’t want to think about practically running this race, it was too hard.

Opening the race instructions and touching my race number made my skin go cold. Packing all the food and drink to take to the hotel made me feel sick. For so long I have described this race as a moment in the future, obsessing about the successful outcome of finishing. I could no longer think just about this moment, I had to think about getting there. 45 hours, 145 miles, 500,000 steps, 20,000 calories, one sun-rise, maybe 2 sun-sets. It was almost like someone has just rudely put these obstacles in between me and my finish.

Sleeping before the start?

The first few miles did involve ducking below a few low bridges. I hoped there were not too many of these later; I’m not much good at this at the best of times. I ran with Shaw Pye for the first 5 miles. After less than a mile we did take a wrong turning and ran into a dead end. As if the race wasn’t long enough. It wasn’t the distance that mattered, if I can get lost 1mile into the race with loads of other runners around in the daylight then how will I fare when it’s dark, there is no-one around, I’ve been running for 20 hours and hallucinating?

Apparently you lose an inch in height when you run a marathon. That meant that I stood to lose 5.7 inches by the end. I’ll only be 5”4 and those low bridges would no longer be a problem.

Shaw was running a bit quicker than I wanted to; trying to keep up with the lead group of about 6. Rather than openly admit to wanting to go slower I said I needed to duck into the bushes for a minute. I did and watched them slowly disappear into the distance.

Catherine De Barnes Bridge – 10.7 miles

The first checkpoint was after 10.7 miles at Catherine De Barnes Bridge. By this time I was already alone. I put on a sprint finish for the cameras and met Campbell, Ben and Simon who were 3 quarters of my support crew for the race. I felt nice and warmed up and it was good to see the first checkpoint and my crew, all looking very smart in their official supporters’ jerseys.

It’s funny how I now consider 11 miles as a warm-up. 3 years ago that was a long run. I’d spent the last week worrying about some stabbing pains I was getting in my legs. I was not carrying any injuries but parts of my legs were hurting for no reason. I dismissed this as my brain trying to trick me into backing out of doing something stupid. I ignored my brain which is often the right thing to do because sometimes it’s an idiot. The pains in my legs were no longer there, I felt good even though I was only 8% into the race.

Sprint Finish worthy of a 10 miler

I was at the second checkpoint at Hatton Locks (22 miles) in about 4 hours. I saw Harley Inder who had run it last year and was part of a film crew taking footage of this event. I told him that the shorts he was wearing were criminal. He said I was looking good and that I should take it easy. A long way to go.

Between 20-40 miles my support crew were getting concerned that I was not taking enough food. I was getting plenty of energy drink but the plan to eat constantly along the way was not happening. I’d advised them before that they would probably have to force feed me as I’m unlikely to want to eat much, even though I need to. I always took protein bars with me but just ended up carrying them along for another 10 miles. At about 35 miles I was treated to a battered sausage. Not the kind of food I planned on eating but it went down a treat. I think Campbell had meant to get me a sausage roll but the guy in the chip shop was a bit confused.

I’ll introduce my support crew in order of appearance.

Campbell I’ve only just met. He runs marathons and ultras and appeared to be really excited and intrigued about supporting me on this race. I’m really glad he was so enthusiastic, I was going to rely on that.

Ben I’ve known for a few years now. He runs the occasional marathon when he’s not writing theses. Since he got a proper job he has taken a worrying turn towards triathlons. I hope that by doing this I can help convince him to come back.

Simon has always been a (very slightly) faster marathon runner than me (5 seconds sometimes). I spent a few weeks as a faster runner than him, however he beat my time again the week before. That’s enough about Simon for now.

Gowan likes to get himself in situations that may result in being moaned at by me. He supported me on my first ultra and as long as he’s there I know I won’t be running my last. He laces cakes with Malibu and pizzas with mushrooms so I’ll have to be careful what I take from him.

Around 40 miles the path became quite overgrown and footing was a bit more difficult. Nettles and other plants had taken over the path, making it difficult to keep up a good pace, which was probably a good thing. No point rushing. I was startled for a moment when I almost stepped on a snake. I knew that there were a couple of snake species resident in England but never thought I’d encounter one in a race. I sent a message to the support to say I just saw one and for reassurance that I’m not going delirious yet - I wasn’t even a third of the way in. Unfortunately I misspelled the work snake and my support then took the piss out of me for being scared of a nasty shake. Great, it’s barely afternoon and they all think I’ve lost it already.

At 46miles the canal goes underground and some minor navigation is required. This was the first time I took my map out of my pocket. The path basically goes up a long incline through some fields and at the top of this hill were my support team. They informed me that I was 6th and looking much better than those in front of me upon whom I was gaining. It was time I sent an update to everyone.

I set up a text group on my phone to keep people up to date with how I was doing. Partially because I’m sure they wanted to know but mostly because the replies gave me a lift. It was 2pm and I sent “46 miles in 8 hours. Only 99 to go J ”. I looked forward to reading the replies.

 

The one reply that stuck with me for some time was from Ian who congratulated me on “a good start”. I suspect that although he was being factually accurate in his appraisal of my first 46 miles there was an undertone of sarcasm there. I did think about it for a while (had quite a long time to think). 16 months ago I was making a really big deal of a 45 mile race that I trained for quite a lot. I finished it and was really pleased with the outcome and wrote a story about how fulfilling the whole experience was. Look where I am now. 16 months on I’ve just completed the same distance, a bit slower but feeling very fresh but with 99 miles to go. 45 miles seemed enormous to me 18 months ago but here I was running in a race where that enormous distance was nothing more than “a good start”. It might have depressed me, instead it reminded me about how far I’ve come over the past year. The start was good, now for the middle bit.

The middle bit

My Garmin usually tells me when I’ve run further than I ever have done before. The battery life is only 10 hours though and so I couldn’t wear it in this race (unless I had 4). I like to at least congratulate myself silently when I pass this longest point which would be 54 miles, however I had no way of knowing. I did not think too much about the distance or the time, I just kept reminding myself how good I was feeling in what was now the longest I’d ever run, both in time and distance. I stayed focused on the finish. Not long after my crew supplied me with a subway, Italian BMT to celebrate. I should have mentioned before that I don’t like sweet corn, I’m suspicious of its crunchy noise and it has no place in a sandwich. As I was ungraciously devouring it the film crew approached and asked if I wanted to be interviewed. I said yes and continued eating. I’m not too sure what I said to them at that point, it was probably great marketing for subway though.

Heavily concentrating on not eating sweetcorn

I’d been advised by a friend that my crew would have to really force food into me. I told them as much and now I was there I resisted food sometimes. I previously ran the Thames Meander (54 miles 9 hours) with very little solid food and at 60 miles was still not feeling hungry. Strange how watching a film or getting a train makes me hungry but 10 hours of running does not. I was going to need them later on to get a bit more aggressive in their feeding. I was always going to say no and that would have been disastrous.

About 60 miles in I saw a runner ahead. He was going too slowly to be a recreational jogger so assumed he must be part of the race. It then occurred to me that I’d run over 50 miles without seeing any other runner. I had no idea it would space out this much. My preference was to run on my own but I’d always imagined that there would be people just ahead and just behind. I don’t know why - dividing 75 people across 145 miles makes for lots of lonely runners. I chatted briefly and passed him. He looked like he was struggling. Another couple of miles I overtook another who was also struggling. They’d hit walls early on that surely I would hit later on. I couldn’t think about it now, just keep going and deal with that if/when it happens.

Around 65 miles the canal goes underground again and I had to run along some roads above to rejoin it. I needed to ask for directions a couple of times and was heading in the right direction. I got the first pangs of paranoia as I followed the route given to me. Because I couldn’t see the canal straight away I started walking and looking around. I followed a path with a big yellow arrow on it (I worried that this might be someone taking the piss). I jogged up this path and then for some reason turned around and ran as I was sure this was not the way, until another runner came and insisted that it was. He’d done it last year so following him was fine. Within a minute we were back on the canal.

Don’t you get bored when you are running for so long? The second most common question asked of me by non-runners, the first being “Isn’t it bad for your knees?” – The answer to both is emphatically no. I can’t really remember exactly what things I thought over the course of this run while I still had control of my thoughts. It’s as if running moves you to a lower state of consciousness where you are free to think silly things that may not make sense.

I thought about how vicious geese get when they have chicks and what my chances would be if I had to fight one. At this stage I was a good bet, later on I’d have struggled. I thought about the cow that charged at me in the Dartmoor Discovery race last year and wondered whether I could currently outrun one. I probably had the advantage due to the terrain. I tried not to think about work too much, I was here to enjoy and challenge myself, neither of which ever happen to me there. Then I got a craving for a Coke. I never usually drink Coke but I just really wanted one just then. My crew obliged.

I thought about finishing mostly, that moment of seeing the finish come into view and then sprinting for it. I looked forward to having the medal hung round my neck as a symbol of completion. Medals are nice to have as a reminder of races you have done, thought I doubted I’d need anything to remind me of this race. They are nice mementos.

A GUCR finishers medal would be my second most prized possession, the first being something I already own. Earlier in the week I’d bought a one way train ticket from London to Birmingham, a fairly unexciting piece of card. If I finish this race this will be transformed from a worthless piece of paper to my most treasured thing. If I didn’t then it was going in the bin.

To answer the original question again, no I don’t get bored while running because I’m not boring. I can entertain myself with my own imagination in a way that maybe they can not. I felt sorry for them, sat at home waiting for the Apprentice to come on.

Still showing my number - that being the rule :)

Still feeling good I came to the 70 mile checkpoint and met my team. Gowan had now arrived and Ben and Simon were planning on going to a hotel they booked to get some sleep. Alright for some. I was interviewed again by the film crew who again commented on how fresh I looked. I was still in 4th place and looking strong. They asked what was on my mind and I said running in the dark and staying awake. They’d asked how I planned on dealing with that and my honest response was that I don’t know. One regret in the training going into this race was that I’d not done any night running before. This was going to be the biggest challenge. I still had a couple of hours of sunlight though and my original goal was to get to half way by sundown. I was hours ahead.

Only about 85 miles to go

Running through Milton Keynes was more pleasant than I thought. Gowan and Campbell were planning on meeting me about every 5 miles at this stage but they missed me at one meeting place because I was still going faster than they expected. Faster than I expected to be doing at this stage. Time for another update.

78 miles. 3 Marathons. 14 hours. Feeling ok still. 4th place”.

About 80 miles in I saw Shaw ahead of me walking. He looked very unhappy. He’d sat down at the previous checkpoint to eat and done something to his hip which prevented him from running. His Dad was walking beside. I chatted briefly and said that sometimes these things just go away in races like this. I hoped he’d get back running soon and would have liked to have run with him, especially as night was falling. Since I still had running in me I went ahead, now in 3rd place.

I didn’t enjoy overtaking Shaw. I know it’s a race and all that but there seemed to be something undignified about passing someone who had been unlucky as he had. Obviously I want to do the best I can but I wanted to be competing against others at their best. I was also worried that just overtaking him would have bad consequences for his morale. I know that if I was walking and someone passed me in that fashion it could break me.

Just before night falls. Gowan and Campbell take over

Nightfall

The 85 mile checkpoint just outside Milton Keynes was where Campbell started to run with me. Night was falling and I was starting to feel sleepy. I’d been up since 4am and didn’t get a great deal of sleep the night before. It worried me that I was feeling this way even before the sun had gone down. I started to think about those 9 minutes I gave up in the morning.

Leighton Buzzard was the 92 mile point. We met Gowan who was waiting by a bridge next to a pub with some rather unsavoury chavs in the beer garden. They seemed disturbed by the thought of people out running at this time of night when they could be in a pub drinking hooch. My attention was then distracted by Pat Robbins and his support runner cruising past me like I was stood still. He was looking in really good form. 92 miles and still that fresh? I looked like that about 10 miles ago. That seemed like a long time ago.

I asked Campbell to run ahead of me so I could follow. The headlamps made parts of his clothing glow as he ran along the canal in pitch black. I couldn’t imagine doing this without a team of people to support me. I don’t think I really appreciated how hard it would be to support a race like this, neither did I really thank the guys for giving up their time to support me. My job was straightforward if not easy, just keeping running till the end of the canal in London. Theirs was not so easy. They had to make sure they navigated to the right places at the right times without much info from me. Getting the right food, saying the right things. I wouldn’t have liked to be there without them. We passed lots of houseboats and could see the TV’s inside. It was the night of the Eurovision song contest, almost worth cancelling the race for.

The next checkpoint was 100 miles and in Tring. I’d been thinking of this for a long time. 100 miles was a milestone in itself but arriving at Tring would feel like I was almost there. I’ve run to London from there twice now and the path there on would perhaps seem familiar.

It just didn’t seem to come though. I felt like I was running forever and Tring was getting no nearer. Several times I stopped to get the map out and confirm that we were headed in the right direction. It seems like irrational paranoia as I write this but the consequences of taking a wrong turn could have ended my race. In fact we were not running that slow, it just felt that way. Time seemed to be standing still. There were quite a few locks which involved inclines and I was in no mood to run up them. After what seemed like hours I finally arrived into the 100 mile checkpoint in 19 hours. Well ahead of target (24 hours) but had quickly gone from feeling “quite good” to “quite poor”.

Harley and the film crew were there again and interviewed me as I drank hot tea. He congratulated me on getting there so quickly and still in good shape. I can’t remember what they asked me or what answers I gave. I think I still managed to fool others into thinking I’m still ok. I wasn’t.

I met Harley just over a year ago when he was in training for this race. We were on a bus from Ealing on our way to the Finchley 20. I was aware of the race at that point but didn’t know too much about it. We chatted about this, the Marathon De Sables and Tring 2 Town (which we’d both done a month back). It is possible that this conversation prompted me to start my obsession with finishing this race in 2008. I can’t really remember where it started. That day was not so successful for me, I didn’t even finish the 20 miles, I dropped out at 15. Now look at me, I’ve just finished that race 5 times over.

Tring 2 Town again

We got moving again, my chatting had died down somewhat. I yelled “GO” and “STOP” to Campbell like he was a husky dog. The plan was to meet Ben in Berkhamsted and then run 17 miles with him. I didn’t really bother myself with the details of how they planned to support me; I just wanted to have my stuff as near to me as possible.

About 10 minutes after leaving the Tring checkpoint Campbell pointed out the start of the Tring 2 Town race, a slope leading from the main road to the canal. I was devastated. I thought I’d just passed 100 miles when in fact this was the 100 mile point. There are 45 miles to go from here. It shouldn’t have mattered too much, it was only a mile, however at this stage the little things were getting blown up by my faltering and tired mind. This was just the start.

Berkhamsted was a 103 miles and this is where we saw Ben and Gowan. We had to be quiet as we were outside someones house at nearly 2 in the morning. Ben was to run with me for 17 miles until we met Simon who was parked in Springwell Locks near Watford. I wanted to get there by 6am (more than 4 hours) so that I could send my next update to inform people that I had less than a marathon to go within 24 hours.

I was in quite a lot of pain by this point. Both quads were very sore, the left knee hurt along the ITB band and both ankles were sore. I wanted some Nurofen gel. When I was informed that this was with Simon 17 miles away I fumed. I wanted it even more. I asked (ordered) Ben to start running and I followed. He kept a greater distance between us than Campbell did which was probably wise. I was in a foul mood and was only capable of talking in catty remarks. I complained some more about how much pain I was in and how I needed the nurofen and how 17 miles was too far to go. I moaned then moaned some more. Then it started to piss it down.

We passed Berkhamsted station which is where we cross a bridge. I remember this from before and the familiarity gave me a short-lived lift. Hemel Hempstead took an age to get through. My legs felt like they were falling apart, the backs of my knees felt like they’d been slashed. I moaned some more about Nurofen and hot food. I didn’t even want to eat hot food, I just wanted to moan about it. I’d been transformed from the chirpy runner I was at 92 miles to a monster.

Key to running races like this is to be able to separate your body and mind. Your body will keep pressing on the mind that you should stop. I felt it even before the race started and had to tell myself that it wasn’t real. Some of the pain I was feeling now was real for sure but my body was really beating my brain up about it. I’d let the suffering into my mind and it spread like an infection. Within 10 miles I’d gone from mentally strong to mentally weak. My body was ready to stop a few hours before and at about 117 miles it had convinced my mind to do the same.

There were many symptoms of this surrender. I was flying off the handle at any slight obstacle, like two bridges with the same number on or lack of hot food. I was disgracefully rude to those who’d given up a lot of their time to help me through this. I started to feel cold. My mind was telling me that dropping out would not be that bad, 120 miles is still pretty good, something to be proud of.

For the first time in the race I was unable to think of finishing; only of the misery I was going through right now. Since I couldn’t see the finish anymore I couldn’t see the point of running. I started walking.


At about 3 miles till the next checkpoint it was getting light again. It did not have the lifting effect I was expecting. This had been a moment I was banking on to spur me on some more whereas it just reminded me of how little ground I had covered during the night. I told Ben to run off and come back with the Nurofen. I doubt it would have made much difference. In fact Ben had long considered giving me Imodium and telling me it was Nurofen for the placebo effect. It maybe would have worked, but then I would have killed Ben for keeping that from me all this time. I looked on ahead for what seemed like hours. Occasionally trying to get back into a run but unable to I limped on and started performing the worst case scenario calculations. I had no idea what pace I was doing but figured I couldn’t be hobbling faster than 3 miles an hour. With 27 miles to go at 24 hours on the clock that would be another 10 hours and 34 hours – and a really miserable 10 hours at that.

I sent another update at 6am – “24 hours. 118 miles. Still 4th but walking now”. I guess I wanted to inform people not to expect too much from me now, I wasn’t expecting much from myself.

I saw Simon running up the other way at last and he smeared my legs with the Nurofen I’d been moaning about for hours. I hobbled into the checkpoint at 120, well over an hour later than planned.

I sat down for the first time in a day. I took off my shoes and socks and discovered 3 enormous purple blisters at the ends of my feet. For about 50 miles I’d been thinking there was a stone in my shoe but could not find it. Now I knew. I ate a hot sausage roll and drank some tea. I changed my shoes and socks, though not without moaning that I didn’t have my preferred shoes available. Ben and Simon commented (privately) that I was having a J-Lo moment and considered going out to get some rose petals to lay down in front of me as I ran. I’m not much of a drama queen usually, I guess it’s useful to know that I only become one after 100 odd miles of running and 24 hours of non-stop movement. I hope they forgive my frivolous demands, they know I’m still Jenny from the block.

I sat for about 20 minutes in all. Stopping for so long can be dangerous in this race, you feel like you are only 20 minutes from a coma at any point. I needed to be helped out of the chair and standing up was painful. I could no longer isolate parts of my legs that hurt, the whole lot was burning. There were no photos taken that I recall and the film crew had gone to the end. I wondered how long it would be till I was there. Simon was ready to run with me for a while but I said I wanted to be alone now. The rain fell heavier as I limped down a slope to rejoin the canal. Less than a marathon to go.

I’m no psychologist but I am aware of the presence of subconscious thought. It’s what takes over when snap decisions are required, like life and death situations. It drives instinctive and instant behaviours when the body is under threat and logical conclusions of the rational mind can’t come quick enough. I don’t know whether this extends to longer time periods when the body is under prolonged duress. I can’t explain it.

I still had plenty of time to finish this race. I still could have crawled to the end in under 45 hours (the cut-off). I still could have walked in 36 and got the time I expected in the first place. Time and place became unimportant at this point, all I wanted to think about was finishing.

I tried subsequently in the race to pick the words to describe what happened to me at this moment but I still can’t do it. It seemed to happen independently of any action or decision by myself. The best I can do is to say that at Springwell Lock at 7am on Sunday 25th May my body and my mind had given up. As I descended that small slope and the rain fell harder my soul stood up and told those two quitters to go and fuck themselves, I’m going to cross that finish line with dignity. I started running again.

The first mile was excruciating, like running in acid. I just leant forward slightly and ran straight through all the puddles. The water on my calves gave slight relief, my body still complained and the mind concurred. I didn’t care; I’d fallen out with those two and was not listening to them anymore. I promised myself I’d keep on running till the end and that was what I was doing.

The slow shuffle increased in pace. It was not long before I felt like I was running again. I met Ben and Simon at 125 miles and did not want to stop. I think I was running at 6mph for the first time in 50 odd miles. I felt great, I didn’t know whether it was hurting anymore because I wasn’t listening. I continued to the next meeting place which was 130. I could not quite believe the turnaround. I’d won them back, sailing through 130 miles I had managed to convince my body and conscious self that I was going to do this. I stopped under a bridge to take a call from Campbell who had now rejoined the crew. I asked him to meet me at Bulls Bridge Junction (the left turn that signals only a half marathon to go).

Running long distances can take you on an emotional rollercoaster, that’s part of the appeal. I recall from my early marathons the low feelings when quite a way into the race but still far from the end. Having run quite a few now I have to look to harder things to get these feelings back. The thought of starting a race that I might not be able to finish was exhilarating. I was not at all prepared for this, the sick feeling I had in the days before the race, the phantom pains, dreams about being in the race.

I knew there would be highs and lows but did not expect the lows to be so low. 10 miles previously I was crushed, possibly the worst state I’ve been in my life. In the space of 2 hours that turned around into a euphoric feeling unlike anything I’d felt before. For the first time since Berkhampstead I could see the finish again, I thought about crossing the line. The emotion completely overwhelmed me, so much so that as I approached a gate I stopped, hung onto the railing and cried.

It was only for 10 seconds or so, I just leant into my arms and sobbed for a while. It came on suddenly and I didn’t really care if anyone was around. This was possibly the highest I’ve felt in my life and I’m going to save this moment. About 9.30am, pissing down with rain along a polluted canal towpath in a building site in Hayes I had a life affirming moment I will never forget. It was beautiful.

Soon the nasty logical brain took over, at least it was on my side now. Come on James, stop being such a baby. You’re a grown man, snap out of it. Grrrrrrrr.

I was still sobbing slightly when I met Campbell and Gowan at Bulls Bridge. They decided not to film me, though I wouldn’t have minded. I was so glad to see them and I hoped they’d forgive my behaviour earlier. I felt so good I almost felt guilty since I can’t believe they would have felt the same. I was on the home straight now, 13.5 miles to go.

Inevitably the pace slowed again, I didn’t mind too much. The logical brain did make a good point that I have actually run quite far and there was good reason for my legs to hurt and my pace to be quite slow. We were back on speaking terms, since now we had the same goal.

With about 10 to go I met Dave Ross and his friend Edward who had originally come to support someone else but she dropped out earlier. It was great to see them and I felt a bit more conversational than before but not much. I wasn’t really ready for two way conversation, it was nice just having them in front of me and chatting, except of course when they mentioned a 100 miler that Edward did a few weeks ago that he didn’t finish because he got back spasms with 4 miles to go. I have SEVEN miles to go, SHUT UP.

The rain stopped but the puddles made the run difficult. I was in no mood to dance around them so I ran through most, the water helped the pain. Dave and Edward ran on ahead as the canal started to get busy. I’d been told that the next runner behind me was “miles” behind, I didn’t really come here with a competitive finish in mind but felt that 4th has been mine since half way. I didn’t want to let it go. Quite often a fresh jogger would come up behind and overtake; I just assumed that anyone who can run faster than me at this point clearly isn’t in this race. My race number did say “145 miles” and Birmingham – London” on it, I kind of hoped that those out and about on the canal would see that.

6 miles to go I saw Simon and Ben who supplied me with a nice warm long sleeved Serpie top. This was the 4th top I’d worn in the race. I put it on and felt like I was glowing, it was the perfect temperature and dry. This is it now, still more than an hour to go but felt like this was the glory leg.

Lou Reeves met me with about 4 to go. It was great to see her as she’d been quite active in the replies to the text messages in the night. She was in more of a chatty mood than I was, I liked hearing her talk but didn’t really want to talk myself. I said to her to go easy on the questions. She obliged and just chatted to herself like I wasn’t there, which was nice.

The path was quite hard now which allowed for some pretty speedy running, unfortunately I could not take advantage and was reduced to a shuffle that couldn’t have been much more than 4mph. We joked at the start that given the shorter stride we would do this 233km race in it would probably take half a million steps to complete it. It was suggested that we count them (and if you lose count you have to start again). I didn’t, but knew I had only a few thousand to go.

I’ve been obsessed with this finish line for so long now, over a year of anticipation and 30 hours of pain. From talking to Harley on that bus, sending off the application, booking the hotel and train ticket I just thought about that white banner. Predicting the feeling as I ran right into a wall that marks the end of the Grand Union Canal made all the work seem worth it. It was hard to explain to others in words why I’d do something like this but I didn’t care. I only needed to answer to myself.

The hardest part of the race coincided with me forgetting about why I was here; to finish. As soon as I could think about it again I felt better. I knew exactly what the finish line looked like as I’d seen the videos so many times. The moment I’d been waiting for was about to happen. That white banner was about to appear.

It really does appear out of nowhere. My eyes were hurting as I tried to spot it in the distance but then it just jumped out after a kink in the canal. No longer did I have to imagine what it would be like to cross this line, I could actually experience it now.

Somehow I managed to break into a proper run and flew through the line. I didn’t look at my watch, I didn’t even start the timer. I just knew that I started this run on Saturday at 6.00am, it was now 12.36pm on Sunday. Simple maths would reveal my time, I was in no state to make such complicated calculations; someone was on hand to write it down. 30 hours and 36 minutes of running, and so much more.

I remained composed as I sunk my head and Dick Kearn (race organiser) hung a huge slab of metal round my neck. It was hard to get up again, it’s quite big. It was really great to see so many people around the finish. My support crew produced cake and champagne to celebrate the victory. I sat down and paraded my blisters. Campbell surgically lanced them while the cameras filmed and passers by looked in disgust.

The numbers will always be important to me. 145 miles, 30 hours and 36 minutes, 12.39 minutes per mile average pace, 4th place and 10th fastest finisher of all time. These are the things that will appear alongside my name if you look in years to come.

By far the most important part was the experience I had doing this race. I’ve thought so long about the finish and how great it would feel. I was so sure that crossing the line would give me the greatest feeling ever. I was certain that crossing the line that I’d worked towards for a year and obsessed about in all my waking hours and many of my sleeping ones would lift me higher than I have ever experienced. But it didn’t. That moment came a few hours before.

I find it hard not to cringe sometimes at races and holidays that say “discover yourself” and “push yourself to your limits and beyond”. I guess it’s time for me to get out of marketing. I can truly say that this experience has satisfied both of those claims without needing to shout about it on the website. It was something that perhaps can’t de described in words, but I’ll try anyway.

After 24 hours of running and 120 miles I felt like I'd reached my limit. My body was broken and my mind didn't want to take part anymore. It was rationalising the effort that I had already done and was being quite congratulatory. Most people would not dream of running 120 miles. It said to me "well done but it's time to leave now".

And I had done well, this was something I could not imagine myself doing a year ago and could not imagine anyone doing a few years ago. There would have been no shame in stopping at this point would there?

Maybe not, but imagine you are doing something long and hard and you have this moment when you feel like it should be over. Imagine some ghost of you appears just ahead with a brush and a big tin of red paint and says "well done buddy, you've done really well to get this far but this is it, this is your limit". He then starts to paint a red line right in front of your eyes.

A rational brain would say "he has a point, I've gone quite far". However there is nothing rational about running 145 miles. This is no place for those who like living in spreadsheets and having everything planned to perfection. This is a place for emotional imperfectionists who are willing to risk the debilitating feelings of failure in order to experience the kind of highs that can not be described.

The ghost with the red paint seems like a labourious metaphor for what got me back out of that chair at Springwell Locks. I really can't describe what happened there other to say that I got out of that chair because I wanted to kick this fucker into the canal.

So I chased him, past the line that he had just laid out and down along the canal. I got faster and faster but so did he until he disappeared out of view. That was good, I did not want to see him again. It was when I realised that I wasn't going to see him again that day that the waterworks started.

Though I was far from finishing the race when I had my emotional moment in Hayes I realised that I had already finished in every respect apart from the running. 13 miles from the end but already knowing that I was going to finish? It is very strange but also very liberating.

My hardest times in this race came when I thought too much about the present and not about the end. The finish line was all that concerned me for so long, a year before I crossed the start line. As soon as I forgot that I also forgot why I was here in the first place and that is when I started to beat myself up.

This experience has given me so much that justifies the sacrifices that I mentioned earlier. It has given me moments that I hope I will never forget. I don't believe I'll experience similar feelings to this very often, even if I do longer or harder runs (of which there are very few, none in the UK). I'd still like to try. The GUCR isn't one of those over-hyped corporate races with flashy animated websites that add £20 to your entry fees and spouting the usual tosh of "discovering your limits and beyond". However I did just that. I hope the ramblings above give some idea to how good it felt. But I know it can't, you really have to be there.

 

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Reader Comments (1)

The Grand Union Canal Race (GUCR) is an ultramarathon run from the centre of Birmingham to the centre of London along the Grand Union Canal. Competitors are required to complete the 145-mile (233 km) distance within a time limit of 45 hours. Resting for more than 40 minutes at a time is not permitted. The maximum number of competitors is 80 and is very quickly reached.

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