Friday, 31 May 2013

Grand Union Canal Run (2013) - Race Report

Wow, what can I say, an unbelievable weekend, one that held so many emotions both high and low. I don't know how to start this race report so I think I will just start writing and see what comes out at the end. Just remember that this is a weekend event so get yourself comfortable and get a flavour of the GUCR weekend as it is not just about the running, it is the irrepressible camaraderie and loyalty of not just the runners but the support crews and race staff...just amazing and just looking back at it makes me feel emotional. Individuals from all walks of life meeting to do one thing...get to the other end of the Grand Union Canal.

"I have no expectations, minor goals yes, 
what they are, are for me and me only"

Friday Evening
Meeting up with David in Euston on Friday afternoon our first job was to buy lunch and with a enough food to feed the whole train we boarded for our leisurely 2 hour journey in first class (I had managed to negotiate a very cheap deal) to Birmingham New Street. I was so pleased we had got the luxury of First Class as we had power to charge my Gamin (which I never used), the ability to stretch out & relax and a table to put out the maps and really focus on some minor details.

Arriving in Birmingham David and I departed to our respective hotels about 100 metres apart but planned to meet up at the Travelodge (where I was staying) for check in and to meet up with the other runners. I was staying in Travelodge, not the choice of many but it is cheap and if you can bear the noise of late night revelers it is clean and functional.

Registration was brilliant, quick and easy, check in, have a long and industrious chat with all that turned up and arrange to meet at O'Neills pub across the road. Having eaten a lot at lunchtime I chose to do some last minute shopping and then go for a walk with David along the first mile of the canal just to get a feel of its pulse again. After that it was back to the pub for laughter, conversation, food and a couple of pints of cider before an early night.

The Day of the Race


I was amazed that I had 7 hours of sleep and only awoke twice when a few drunks shouted down the corridor and with my picnic breakfast safely delivered to my door I went about the final kit checks and preparation before leaving for Gas Street. As I turned the corner I was pleased to see a sea of nervous runners mingling around having a warm drink or queuing at the backs of vans to place kit bags on to turn again to join in last minute planning with race crews and runners alike.

I am often known for my extrovert character but today I felt leveled and calm but whilst enjoying a joke or two was very focused on my race, mentally feeling tough I was feeling very independent and business like.

Called to the start at 5.50 am we had a safety briefing and then at 6.00 am on the dot we were sent on our way some running, most of us walking to the first tunnel. I am not even sure where I was after 100 metres, I cared not a jot as I fixed my pace to be very sedate planning to run at an average 5 mph (8kph) speed was not the essence, consistent pace was and as long as I kept my heart rate down I was to crack this baby. The weather had promised to be warm later but all of us had jackets, hats and gloves to keep the warmth in 

To Catherine de Barnes Bridge (10.7 mile) - Checkpoint 1

At CP1
The journey so far was good with a lot of runners in sight both in front and behind my temptation to pick up the pace was always in the forefront of my mind and it was important tell myself ever so often to come down a gear....always come down a gear and it with great pleasure that I looked down at my watch as I passed through at 8.09 am an absolute perfectly paced 5 mph.

Stocking up with some calories in the form of chew bars and peanuts I topped up my water bottle  ditched my hat, gloves and jacket and went on my way even at this point the day was heating up.

"I had set myself minor and major targets either time, a location or a distance. 
You can't think of the race as 145 miles, that would send you mad"

To Hatton Locks (20.4 miles) - Checkpoint 2

This section of the course is unusual as you have to leave the comfort of the towpath and go over the Shrewley Tunnel, a very minor target but it is good to get some goals out of the way early. My mind kept going back to last year when this section was horrible, it was wet, miserable but I was running with other. Today was the complete opposite, dry, warm but cool in the shadows of the trees and I was alone, I was really  happy and was under no pressure at all.

My morning's major target was the little cafe at Hatton Locks just before checkpoint 2, all I wanted was a can of Coca Cola and some hot food for breakfast. Passers by called and whooped as I passed which went quiet as I ducked into the cafe to return with my hands full and now caught on camera with a guilty look on my face. As I got to the curtilage I saw some familiar faces in the form of Allan and Paul who looked all set up for breakfast in the sun. Poor Allan then got a full brain dump from me with me grumbling about a passerby which made me feel better and I traipsed off to the CP for some preventative foot care, a cup of coffee and snacks. I was feeling OK 

To Birdingbury Bridge (36 miles) - Checkpoint 3

I am aware at around now things just merge a little, I am in it for the long run so there are periods of deep concentration, auto-pilot if you want, when running long sections. Whilst the surrounds were stimulating I often slip into these states popping the bubble from time to time if an interesting thing comes into focus. As time went on race crews would pop up at various road bridges and cheer me on or make a joke but these moments were fleeting but I ran on, chipping away at the distances and by now had been running continuously for nearly 6 hours and was beginning to feel a little hungry so it was good to see the CP where I had the chance to feed on cheese sandwiches, strawberry scones, coffee and biscuits. Here I checked my feet which felt  little sore caused by the frequent gravel paths but found them just to be moist from the ground so I covered them in talcum powder and filled my shoes with the same. I was soon told to bugger off by the staff and I moved off.

To Heart of England (53 miles) - Checkpoint 4

Let me not beat about the bush, this next section was a horrible one for me and being 17 miles long I had to have my whits about me, the humour and frenetic activity of the checkpoint now a distant memory as I went about the business of navigating 17 miles, the longest section yet and was pleased to see the turn at Napton Junction but the next 10 miles just dragged on but my mood picked up when I found a little shop open and I purchased another can of Coke and a Calypso ice lolly (popsicle) and had a hilarious time when a lady started cheering me on and telling me silly jokes to get me going. Her mad activity really picked me up and with the new injection of caffeine , sugar and iced cold fluid really gave me a renewed drive as I powered over the Braunston Tunnel seeing me overtake another runner on the down hill section and then the cross country path back to the tow path. Here I met a casual runner who asked to join me for a bit to chat about ultrarunning and was happy for him to do so just to have some interaction as I had not got 47 miles under me and feeling pretty good having just left a bad patch.

In the picture above you can see me crossing the lock at Norton Junction at 48 miles, spectators were tucking in to their pies and supping cool ciders as I stumbled over almost torture when you are tired but I was driven now and all I wanted to do was get to to the Heart of England as I knew that would be the last drive onto Navigation Bridge.

The Heart of England came and went with some hilarious banter from Henk who was offering a rides on the "Death Bus" the van that takes dropped runners to the nearest train station. It was hear I saw my first dropped runner who was casually vomiting in the bushes and in the short time I was there he must have heaved about 5 times. I crammed calories in, drank cups of Cola and shot off, now with my waterproof on, a hat in my bag and a headtorch in my pocket. We were going to enter a new phase of the race soon....the night.

" issue was on the forefoot which is unusual as I normally get bad heels, 
this must be down to my barefoot running..."

To Navigation Bridge (70.5 miles) - Checkpoint 5 

The journey continues, I was thriving, I was focused on the end and as chance would have it I came across Imke Siegerist, a lady I met in Hanover a few weeks ago and had lunch with her and got chatting again. This was to be my night time partner. I told Imke to be very positive at Navigation Bridge as I have seen many people pulled at this point if they appear to be hypothermic or suffering.

The evening light soon faded and we were now at power walking pace as the trail allowed us, Imke told me she had no intention of staying for too long at Navigation Bridge but as she was aware, I held no loyalty to her and she was welcome but if our paths crossed again we could travel together.

On arrival at the bridge I jumped into survival mode and had a set routine of clothing, kit packing and then hot food (comprising bacon quiche and baked beans) two cups of hot coffee and extra carb gels for quick energy. As I was feeling more hydrated now I ditched a bottle and left for the night finding that Imke had left some 10 minutes before me

"...Hallucinations were sporadic and fleeting but when I did see them 
they gave me a start but nothing like last year's continuous loop..."

To Fenny Stratford (84.5 miles) - Checkpoint 6

Compared to last year I was really on top of it, my feet, whilst sore, were OK and my mood good although if I be totally truthful was actually hoping to do the night section on my own as Imke did talk a lot and I needed time with my own thoughts. If I was to walk with her later then I hoped in part silence to concentrate on my own feelings as she was sounding negative. The good thing about this section also was that there was one bridge change at the start and after that the canal would be on our right the whole way for the next 14 miles allowing me to step forth without fear of getting lost.

I soon caught up with Imke and it was apparent now that she was limping slightly, my issue was on the forefoot which is unusual as I normally get bad heels, this must be down to my barefoot running. The conversation was sporadic but as I was feeling tired I asked if I could have some time in my own thoughts which Imke kindly agreed and we happily carried on together at a good pace silently through the night but ever so often pointing a strange thing or to check our position on the map ( I don't care about position as I rely on pace at these times). Hallucinations were sporadic and fleeting but when I did see them they gave me a start but nothing like last year's continuous loop. Whilst not as vivid as I have had in the past, they were still there in the background, a cat's face, a space rocket.

Cracking we eventually got to Fenny Stratford after almost losing hope that it would ever arrive as at this time of day and almost 24 hours on the trail the mind can play tricks on you where you think you see bridges that are not really there.

On arrival all I needed was a hot cup of coffee, some much needed food and the need for some human interaction but was soon off as breakfast awaited me 16 miles down the trail

To Grand Junction Arms (100 miles) - Checkpoint 7

This was an interesting section for me, this is the section that I had failed before within 7 miles and 12 miles, this was not going to be a repeat for me as I wanted to get through 100 miles on my own terms. I was really positive soon although I did note more negativity from Imke whom I felt was on her last section as her limp was becoming more pronounced. My speed was down to 3 mph or so but I was totally up for breaking my personal best distance. My mind was on Little Venice, calculating times, distances and being really up on the whole event.

The sun really started to show its wonder here as it rose above the hills around us to shine through this glorious mist in the valley and that rose from the water of the canal. Coming of the day brought new energy but with it the heat. 

I had now tuned Imke out of my journey for no other reason that I needed to focus on my own emotions and mindset. Up ahead I saw Tesco's in Linslade where I dropped before, I moved through this section fast my mind was on my breakfast and kept on going. I carried on, no way was I stopping and then at 92 miles, Imke called me back and told me she was pulling out, her feet were on fire and she was out of it. I made sure she got to the road for pick up, said my goodbyes and left...harsh as that, I was on my own and now I needed to get going. I had 8 miles to go which at my current pace was a long time but I picked up my pace and dug in......this was a long 8 miles and was feeling a bit down but then realised that I was powering through the 96 mile demons were being eaten away. Then from out of the blue, I saw a runner come in the opposite direction...Stuart Blofield. Stuart was on fire as he came to a halt, full of energy and noise such that it stimulated my tried, befuddled mind to drive me on to the Grand Junction Arms arriving at 10.00am

Breakfast in Tring

At this checkpoint I was pointed to a list of food that could be cooked fresh, I went for a bacon and fried egg sandwich, hot coffee, coca cola, biscuits and sweets. This sounds strange but this was the stuff my body craved and I was happy to give in. I was really buzzing now, really positive, I had 45 hours to go and if I kept to 3 mph I would still have 2 hours to spare for any problem moments. Bag packed with extra water, night kit (in case no bags at the next CP) however it was going to be a long day, in fact 7 hours to the next CP and I know it was going to be tough, but this was the GUCR and this hardship is to be expected.

"...staring out at me was a seriously angry owl..."

The end game

Leaving the 100 mile checkpoint after some much needed laughter and joking with Henk and Andrew I traipsed off, making notes where water taps were. People were awake now and the towns and villages more often so I was seen chatting to passers by who wanted to know what was going on. Some good natured, some disbelieving, others just plain rude. 

The bridges were steep on this section and I was now in completely new territory so I was now battling the map a little finding that the tiredness was getting to me as it kept me changing sides of the canal. Looking back at this it was pretty straightforward but when you are tired even the simplest tasks can become that much harder. The temperature and sun were well and truly up now and I yearned for some shade. At one point I wanted to have a pee and so looking both ways so as to not upset walkers I went to the side of the path and went to a bush. I heard a rustle and in the middle of my wee I looked down and said "Who are you?" for staring out at me was a seriously angry owl. I was freaked and shouted "Get lost..go on F&%k off" but still it stared, unblinking at me and then I moved my head to look at it again and it morphed and merged back into a bush..........I felt stupid, a horrifically lucid hallucination had just got the better of me!

Laughing at my stupidity I traipsed on, I was now happier than I had been, I had enough food, my feet a little sore but the pain manageable and I had just been able to blag some cold water from a nice family in their garden, I even had a chat to someone in Bourne End who knew of my aunt, I was really positive...........

..........and then I retched and then retched again, my stomach in a knot I started to dry vomit and sweat profusely.....AAAARRRGGHHH the symptoms of heat exhaustion. That was it, I called it a day. From feeling really positive to feel absolutely rubbish within 10 minutes but I am not stupid, there are risks and there are risks.

Thank you
Without wanting to sound too soppy, the GUCR is a gem of all ultras, the organisers, helpers, volunteers, crew members and most of all the competitors are absolutely fantastic. The camaraderie is unbelievable, supportive, friendly and respectful.

I am a little disappointed I didn't go the whole way but I was not going to risk illness but to get to 112 miles unsupported make me feel very proud, I have no regrets.


  1. This is amazing, well done Jerry you are truly my ultra hero and an inspiration. I just hope I don't pee on an angry owls on the thunder run!

  2. Amazing stuff Jerry, very well done and well done too for stopping when your body told you it was time to do so. Tim Aldred

  3. Fantastic running Jerry. You did a brilliant race and made a brave & sensible decision to pull up when you did. Immense respect for you, all the other runners and the support crews too. Very well written blog. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.