It was a year ago that I first completed the Grand Union Canal Race, but was very disappointed that injury forced me to walk most of it. (And caused blisters that left me unable to walk for two days.) This year, I had higher hopes. I figured that if I was fit and uninjured, then 36 hours would be a reasonable time to aim for. Well, I'm not as fit as this time last year - I've had 3 chest infections since September that have meant a lack of quality training, plus my right hip flexor spent the last fortnight being very hurty (and even making me a bit limpy), to the point that I considered deferring GUCR till next year. But I was in the mood for a long run (and 145 miles, or 232 km, is quite long) and figured thirty-something hours would do just fine. Also, at the last count, this year I've raised £23 576 for the charity Animal Aid, so there was added incentive to go the distance.
I took a slow train up to Birmingham on Friday night. It's an odd feeling buying a one-way ticket that far, knowing that one shall be making the return journey on foot. I checked into a hostel, far enough out of the centre of town to be relatively quiet (cheap, but with the luxury of a double room to myself) for an early night. Then was up before half past four to walk to the Gas Street Basin in time to register and drop off my kit bags, before the 6am start. I collected my GUCR 2011 sweatshirt - Dick had had a black one made specially for me - brilliant!There were a lot of folk I knew there, including some who've finished several times, others who'd tried but never made it to the end and some GUCR virgins. This race has a very special atmosphere and it felt great to be a part of it again. I felt very happy as we set off, though I was noticeably limping as my hip flexor gently moaned at me. Fortunately my breathing was ok - the course of antibiotics I was on last week seemed to have worked. I chatted with other runners a bit here and there, though spent most of the route on my own. There were some friends crewing for others at a similar pace to me, so I kept seeing them throughout the race and they were always encouraging. I had chosen to be "unsupported" again. This actually means that rather than bringing my own crew to cater for my every whim, I used the checkpoints which are manned by volunteers, who have food and drinks and kind words for the fifty unsupported runners. Also we have access to our kit bags at these points. As a vegan, I don't expect there to be much food that's suitable for me, so my kit bag is mainly just a food bag. I carry a rucksack all the way with some spare layers of clothes, a Camelbak bladder full of at least a couple of litres of water (I get thirsty!) and enough food to get me to the next checkoint (they vary from 11 to 20 miles apart). My food supply included a range of muesli bars, Torq energy gels, salted nuts, bombay mix, japanese rice crackers, vegan sausages and hot cross buns.
As the day went on, my legs didn't get any worse. I was moving a lot more slowly than usual, but seemed to be moving pretty smoothly considering. I stuck to the 25:5, run:walk thing for the first 5 hours, then my Garmin inexplicably ran out of juice. I had a spare in my kit bag, but actually just decided to wear a normal watch, as I realised I could get the distance from the route map. Reading this to see what bridge number would mean I'd covered another mile provided a good distraction from the aches and pains that were developing - nothing too bad though, and no blisters for most of the way.
There was plenty of wildlife. I watched a small common coot charging beak-down at a swan, which seemed a bit scared and actually swam backwards in retreat! An odd sight - I didn't know they had a reverse gear. Presumably nobody told the coot that thing about swans being able to break your leg. There were several majestic herons, lots of bats, especially at dusk, several geese that hissed at me as they watched over their goslings, a huge pretty butterfly, some irritating midgies, a nonchalant rabbit and three black barge cats.After last year's enforced walking, I was very pleased to be able to keep putting in sections of jogging throughout, but found that actually at night my running pace was slower than my walking! I kept alternating between the two in an attempt to ward off blisters, which seemed to work. I didn't get too sleepy during the night and enjoyed the sunrise a few miles out from the 100 mile point, which I reached in under 23 hours. I felt rather fatigued later in the morning, but continued to stay in good spirits and enjoy the journey. I was still running (well, doing the ultra-shuffle at least) between walking, and managed to keep the blisters away until the final turn onto the Paddington arm, about 13 miles from the finish. The surface of the canal path is very stony a lot of the way, which makes for sore feet, so the grassy sections were always welcome (except when they were on a camber).
Timewise it didn't look like being much faster than last year after all, with me being just over a couple of hours up at the 100 mile point. When I got to 3 miles to go though, I realised that I might just squeeze in with the sub-36 I'd really wanted. So I switched up a gear despite the blisters which had just started to scream at me within the last few miles. A finish in daylight would be lovely.
And I made it in 35 hours and 43 minutes. Nice. Not nearly as fast as I'd aimed for last year, but I'm well chuffed with it this time. Dick was at the finish along with others, runners and helpers, who cheered me in. A fantastic feeling. And a big shiny medal. I placed 19th out of 53 finishers (there were 92 starters) and 3rd female.
I hung around for a bit and saw a few more folk finish before wandering slowly home (two tubes, then a bus to the end of my street). The damage? Only 3 proper blisters, probably 3 toenails to come off eventually too. But the soles of my feet, while a little sore, were still stand-on-able. And my hip flexor was sore, but not much worse than it had been. I couldn't lift my leg properly, but could still walk pretty well. Today is Tuesday and we've been out shopping and to a museum, including going up and down lots of steps with no problems. I'll take at least a couple more days off running to let my legs heal properly, but I'm looking forward to getting back out again. I might want another go at this one sometime, but I don't feel the need to run GUCR next year. I'm hoping to go along and help out at the checkpoints though.
A brilliant event - the logistics of organising it are mind-boggling, but Dick Kearn does it every year in good humour. He's a true ultra hero. And his team, along with the other runners and their crews, make this a top weekend to be part of.