Phew, that was a very long way on foot. 145 miles. Longest race yet.
Having trained pretty thoroughly and feeling like I had the fitness, strength, stamina and mental whatnot to have a really good crack at GUCR this year, it was more than a little annoying that my right knee started to hurt last week. Injury is not something I'm familiar with. I iced and ibuprofened and thought it might have been ok.
There was quite a buzz at the start in Gas Street. A lot like the start of other events, but with an air of excitement mixed with fear among the 91 runners. There were plenty of familiar faces and I was feeling very positive, really looking forward to getting going. The first 20 miles zipped by and I felt fantastic and was making very good progress, sticking to a 25/5 run/walk strategy.
Then came the first canal tunnel, where the towpath is diverted up and over a hill. Up was fine, but on the way back down my knee started to complain. It got progressively worse over the next 15 miles or so, until it finally screamed at me in no uncertain terms that it was not going to do any more running. But it felt ok walking (on the flat at least - inclines and steps were not fun). So, I figured I could have pulled out at the 36 mile checkpoint. But I have never DNFed before and I had raised over £20k in sponsorship and besides, I really quite liked the idea of getting from Birmingham to London without taking a train or any of the other usual transport options. The alternative to quitting was to walk the remaining 110 miles. As a runner (or at least a very keen jogger) the idea of walking that far was not really appealing, but I figured it would be a shame to waste the opportunity of taking part in this event and it would at least provide some good mental training. Very frustrating but there was nothing I could do, so I just appreciated that I'm fit and healthy enough to be up for a long intercity mosey and got on with it.
So began a very long walk. The route was pretty if dull (the canal gets a bit samey after a while, though there are some interesting barges and a fair amount of wildlife - mostly herons and various other birds with their cute offspring). I found that while Asics GT2150s are great running shoes, they're not so good for long distance walking. The blisters started to make themselves known somewhere between 50 and 60 miles. I initially kept up a reasonable pace (a little over 4mph) and was not overtaken by many people for ages, until the blisters began to slow me down. Like my knee, I found that the blisters were actually quite bearably painful on the flat, but much worse on uneven surfaces or going up and down inclines (like at the locks), where my feet shifted in my trainers to make them hurt in an unpredictable way. I changed shoes and socks at the 70 mile station, where I saw that the blisters were looking rather angry already. At that point they were on both heels and the balls of of both feet, but not yet on my toes.
I found the night walking fine, with the sky light enough that I didn't bother to use my headtorch much. The 85 mile check was in the middle of the night for me. I didn't stop long at any of the feed stations - just enough to fill my Camelbak and stock up on more food. It was darkest from about half past 2 for a couple of hours, when I began to feel very sleepy and really wanted to have a kip. At 03:30 I passed some sort of noisy car race, which seemed a little surreal. As it got light (around Bletchley) I began to feel a bit more awake and the thought of the next checkpoint at Tring being the 100 mile marker was very encouraging.
Then came the longest section: 20 miles to the next checkpoint. I began to feel very fatigued and spacey at around 11am. I really wasn't sure I could keep going. There's only so much Red Bull and Pro Plus can do. Then the blister on my left heel popped. Or should I say exploded? For a few minutes the pain dramatically increased, but it had the welcome side effect of really waking me up. My spirits lifted and I was pleased to make the next checkpoint in plenty of time - I had been worried that I might have been slowing so much that I was in danger of not making the 45 hour cutoff for the race. As usual it was great to see friendly faces and get looked after, albeit for only a few minutes. With just 25 miles to go it felt like the start of the home stretch.
It was very hot and sunny, but fortunately there was tree cover for a lot of the route. It got more open as we came in towards London. This is a section of the canal I have run several times before in other ultras, but they were all in January or February - it looked almost unrecognisably different in the sunshine! At the final check with just over 12 miles to go, we were given a map and written description of a diversion. I found it really tough having to come off the towpath, especially as the route went through a hilly residential area. I was extremely glad to get back on the canal, especially when the next sign I saw stated that there was 7 3/4 miles to Paddington. Usually that would take just over an hour, but I knew it would be more like 3. The end was finally approaching.
I called Jim when I had 6 miles to go. He was already on his way to the finish and he walked along to meet me about 3 miles from the end. He valiantly tried to get a photo of me with my eyes open (not easy at the best of times) and it was great to have company after 40 hours predominantly spent alone. We chatted about how he'd watched Eurovision Song Contest and how Tommy (our cat) was enjoying the weekend. He'd been posting on Fetch throughout the two days, updating people on how I was getting on.
Finally the finish banner came into view. It was a huge relief for it to be over. Dick was there to present me with my medal (the hardest earned medal I own, without a doubt) and there were more friendly faces there too. I sat in a chair with a blanket and a cup of tea and waited for a taxi home.This morning I popped my blisters and have been icing the backs of both knees. (The left one is very sore - probably an overcompensating thing.) My legs don't really bend or straighten properly and I can only move in a very slow motion comedy walk style.My final time was 41 hours, 5 minutes and I came 29th out of 45 finishers. I think it was quite an achievement, even if not quite the good long run I had hoped for.
The race director, Dick Kearn, is a top bloke of the finest order and his team of helpers are truly fantastic. Huge thanks to all involved. This is one of those events that feels really special, with a brilliant atmosphere. I can hardly wait to do it again...