Grand Union Canal Race 2022

Nobody likes a ‘DNF’ in their race history, and having failed to finish in 2018 due to injury it was safe to say that I had unfinished business with the GUCR. After four years I decided that 2022 would be the year I wanted to return and have a good crack at this iconic ultra-marathon.

The race follows the Grand Union Canal from Gas Street Basin in Birmingham all the way to Little Venice in London, it is 145 miles in length and competitors have 45 hours to complete it. Sounds simple enough doesn’t it?!

At 6:00 am on Friday 3/6/22, whilst many people nursed hangovers from the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations, 98 nutters stood on the canal side exchanging well wishes and hugs with each other, waiting to start their journey to London. The nerves were plain for all to see…

Part One: Birmingham to Stoke Bruerne (65.5 miles)

I had a plan in my head of how I wanted the race to unfold, start slow and maintain that easy pace for as long as I could. I wanted to get to 65.5 miles and my buddy runners as fresh as possible ready to push on through the night. Little did I know what was to come…. I should of known it was going to be one of those days when we missed the first turn out of Birmingham. Samantha Amend and I were busy chatting to Daniel Del Piccolo and we neglected to follow the early race leader James Bennett left. Thankfully I noticed within a few metres and the small group of people that had been following Sam and I turned round and rejoined the correct route. It was a wake up call to ensure that we all paid more attention.

As James Bennett disappeared into the distance, Sam and I settled into a nice chatty pace. It had never been my plan to run with anyone, but if I had learnt anything from previous races it was that the top female ultra-runners are experts at pacing their races. Most of us guys (myself included) go off too fast and then suffer for it later down the line. I planned to run as I had in Spartathlon in 2019 with control in those early miles. It wasn’t long until we found ourselves on our own and it stayed like that for the next 60 miles. We chatted, laughed, and at times felt like we weren’t even racing. It was like we were two mates who had met up for a run along the canal (albeit a long run). The miles passed quickly and easily.

Fueling and hydration was also spot on, I was eating plenty and drinking more than I would normally. This was a real positive as I am notoriously bad for taking in enough calories and fluids to sustain me. Matt Blackburn was crewing me for the early miles and he popped up regularly to ensure that I had access to enough supplies. The tried and tested jammy sandwiches were going down a treat and Sam even asked if she could indulge, in fact I think Matt crewed us both for that first 65 miles. John did pop up to support Sam and provide the treat of a fruit pastille ice lolly which was a godsend.

Kirsty and Oli appeared along the route just before Blisworth to give us some encouragement before they took over crewing duties at 65.5 miles. We then had the added bonus of catching James just before the crew point. Sam got all excited and started upping the pace at this point, I think her competitive edge kicked in and I had to remind her to keep calm. We were both due to pick up our buddy runners and I felt ready to push on. Goal achieved… I had reached Stoke Bruerne with relatively fresh legs, and fully fueled.. it was game on.

Part 2 – Stoke Bruerne to Boxmoor (65.5 – 108.5 miles)

Those of you who understand ultra running will know that you have to make the most of the good times, because the tough moments are just round the corner. More often than not they creep up on us, wait until we are at our most vulnerable and then strike with a vengeance. These long races expose our physical, mental and emotional weaknesses and prey on them, they are when we discover our true nature… are we a fighter? or are we a quitter? do we give in to the overwhelming desire to give up or do we fight with every single ounce of grit and determination to resist and persevere. Given how the first 65 miles had gone you can forgive me for not expecting to hit such a bad patch, but hit me with a vengeance it did.

At 70.4 miles I was in the lead, feeling fresh, strong, and enthusiastic. Matt had joined me and the race had gone perfectly. We greeted Ian Thomas at Navigation bridge, had a quick crew pit stop and then we were off into the heart of Milton Keynes. Things were good. Sam had been joined by Eloise and they were just ahead of us. They were then joined by a third member, a rather dodgy looking bloke who was either under the influence of one substance or another, or was just a particularly enthusiastic chap. Matt and I pushed a little bit to catch up to them and save them from this delightful chap and had a little chat with him before he could no longer keep up with our pace. To be honest given that it was a BH weekend I was surprised that we had to wait that long before an encounter like that.

Not long after this I started to feel a bit off. I couldn’t put my finger on why… I started having to take some extended walking breaks as suddenly my energy levels plummeted and my stomach started to complain. Matt switched with Oli at 80 miles, and poor Oli caught the brunt of the plummet. Not long after leaving the crew point, I sat on the floor… Sam gave me a hug as she ran past with Eli, telling me she was struggling too and to make sure I didn’t give up. I stopped in a pub and Oli rushed in to ask if I could use their toilet.. truth being told I struggled to get to it and then up from it. I wanted to be sick but just couldn’t be… I couldn’t take deep breaths as my lunges felt constricted, and I was becoming weaker and more unsteady on my feet as dizziness began to take hold. I trudged from there to the checkpoint at 84 miles losing places as people overtook me. Each one unknowingly driving a psychological nail into the coffin that was slowly enveloping around me.

At 84 miles I was in a world of trouble. I sat on the floor shivering as my crew worked quickly to give me my warm clothing for the night. The irony is that it wasn’t even cold, if anything it was still a warm, humid evening. My awesome crew made me a hot sugary tea, and tried to get me to eat some food. I’d not had much since 70 miles, other than a few bites of flapjack, but wasn’t too worried as I had eaten so much up to this point.

Matt and Kirsty, urged me to get up and get moving, but I just needed to sit quietly. Then when I did stand I almost toppled into the canal… Matt caught me and helped me steady myself. I needed to get moving and the next 24 miles became a fierce battle between my desire to quit and the need to finish the race…. I felt sorry for Oli who had joined me to run, and all I had done was trudge.

I am a firm believer in the fact that we form habits and I had recently formed a bad one in my races. I hadn’t finished a long race since 2019. It all started at Crawley 24hr in July 2021 when I quit at 100 miles rather than complete the full 24 hrs. Then at Gloucester 24 hr race I stopped at 21 hours, and more recently the centurion track 100 when I stepped off the track at 100km. At all those races I had niggly injuries that I could easily argue were the reasons I stopped, but if I am honest my head and heart just weren’t in them. I used to pride myself on my mental strength, but life events over the last 12 months had taken a lot out of me and I had struggled significantly with my own mental health and well-being. Now here I was again being tested and the temptation to quit was stronger than ever.

Oli did a great job of keeping me going, and we neared the 100 mile mark in around 18 hrs 30 minutes. I sat in the checkpoint and forced down a pasta pot that had been made for me. I didn’t really have the energy to speak. I should have felt so much better as I knew I was in excellent shape, but the dizziness was getting worse, as was the disorientation. One minute I was hot, then I was cold, then I felt sick, then the nausea passed. It was like being on a roller coaster and it was taking all my mental strength to get up and get moving.

It must have been catching because at 104 miles, Oli had a bit of funny turn in the crew stop meaning that he needed to swap out with Matt. Thankfully he was ok, but it showed that the race was taking it’s toll on us all. I walked off waiting for Matt to catch up and when he did we managed to try a little jog. I would run until I was too dizzy to continue and then stop to walk. The issue was that every time I stopped to walk I almost fell over, this led Matt to say I was steadier when I ran. He did a great job of putting himself between me and the canal though.

Those four miles between 104 – 108 were pure purgatory. I spent most of them questioning myself and by 108 miles I had retired from ultra-running as a whole and not just from the GUCR. I questioned whether I could do this anymore, I just felt that I wasn’t the same runner that I had been in previous years and that I should go back to just running normal distances. It shows how out of it I was that I even considered a Fell race might be a better option, never mind that they include suicidal descents and have me running like Bambi on ice.

At 108 miles I was done. We reached Kirsty and Oli, and I just sat on a lock gate for a few minutes. I then stumbled across to my crew and just sat on the floor. Matt put something on the drain cover and before they knew it I had curled up into a ball. My crew covered me with a dry robe and I just lay there. All I wanted to do was get in the car and go home…. After a few minutes I clambered up off the floor, still wobbly and unsure what to do. I shared my doubts with my crew that it was going to be a struggle to get to 115 and that I was seriously worried about missing my train home which was booked for 14:30 that afternoon. They encouraged me to to just try and keep going, so off we trudged. 30 miles to go…..

Part 3 – Boxmoor – Little Venice (108.5 – 145 miles)

The next few miles were cloaked in silence, we jogged until I felt too dizzy to continue and then took short walking breaks. Somehow we caught James Bennett and were too’ing and froo’ing for an age as our run walk strategies didn’t really line up. At about 113 miles we finally started to pull away from him and move into 5th place again. I knew if I stopped for long with my crew at 120 then I would pull out of the race, so I grabbed a jam sandwich, topped up my coke and left straight away. Oli wasn’t quite ready to join me at that point… but I mumbled see you in 5 miles and then walked off. Thankfully Oli didn’t take that as I didn’t want him to run with me, and soon enough he came jogging round the corner to catch me.

The sun was now up and the canal was peaceful and tranquil. Herons fished quietly, and the bird song brought some calmness to what had been a chaotic night. The dizziness reduced significantly and looking back I wonder if wearing a head torch alongside the canal had caused me some disorientation. I hadn’t run with a headtorch for a prolonged duration at night for a long time and whilst I have never had any problems before, perhaps this contributed. I do recall several times where I was caught out by the reflections in barge windows, and then mistook stuff stood by the side of the canal to be people. I guess none of this helps when you already feel like crap.

I was shaken out of my misery a little when Oli said there was a runner ahead of us. I didn’t believe him at all, as my eyes had been playing tricks on me for ages. But sure enough as we rounded a corner, there was the unmistakable sight of Sarah Sawyer and her buddy runner jogging along. I say unmistakable as those who know Sarah, know she likes to run in bright colours and today was no different. Sarah had been pacing her race really well and seeing them gave me a huge lift as I had thought I was miles behind everybody. Shortly after passing Sarah, we caught Dan up and passed him. Dan had run past me whilst I was curled up in a ball at 108 miles and I remember him looking so fresh as he did. I’m not sure he even noticed me on the floor then, but if he did that must have given him a boost at the time.

Catching these two phenomenal runners made something switch in my head. Maybe all wasn’t lost, maybe I could finish this race and 3rd place overall would be an achievement considering what I had been going through. Oli and I arrived at the next checkpoint, restocked and then got going as quickly as we could. The others hadn’t arrived by the time I left and now I had a reason to push. I wanted to put as much distance between myself and James, Sarah and Dan who were now chasing me.

This stint was going to be the longest. It was 7 mile until I saw crew again and until Matt would rejoin me for the final 18 miles. Oli and I jogged, then we ran, then we walked. I was managing to run further each stint and kept checking with Oli that we were putting in a good pace. Do you think they’ll be catching me? I kept asking Oli. Then I’d also ask him how he thought the front runners were doing… Had Sam finished, did I think that Rick could keep up his pace? Oli’s response was comical to say the least.. ‘I’ve no idea mate!’ After all why would he? he had been focusing on just keeping me in the race.

As we neared 127 miles, Matt text Oli to let him know that we were closing in on Rick in 2nd place (although for some reason they were calling him Mark). I knew that it was good running from that crew stop until the end so this spurred me on. Maybe the race wasn’t going to be a total failure and I could salvage something from the night of hell. We ran into the crew point and I saw Rick’s crew. This meant we were really close. I took a jam sandwich and grabbed a quick refill of coke and then left quickly. The competitive instinct kicked in and I was determined to put in an effort to catch 2nd place.

As we left I said to Matt, ‘how far is he ahead of us’ to which Matt looked at me quizzically… ‘he’s sat back there you idiot.. you’re already ahead of him’. That just shows how much attention I had been paying to my surroundings. The reality dawned on me that I was now in second place and leading the men’s race. I had 18 miles left (plus a little diversion) to get the job done. Matt in fact had to tell me to slow down as we threw in a couple of 8 minutes miles. He reminded me that there was still a long way to go and my enemy now was burnout. Thanks to the early pacing though my legs felt strong and I knew as long as the dizziness didn’t come back that I could push if I had too.

Head down I ran, desperate to get to the Paddington turn as quickly as I could. That would mean 13 miles to go and I’d be on the home stretch. Two crew stops to go….. no mistakes, no errors, focus and get the job done was all I kept telling myself. Matt would tell me if we were going to fast, but I also kept seeking reassurance that no one would catch me. We were quickly through the next two crew points, navigated the diversion without trouble (thanks to Oli’s amended gpx) and were soon on the home leg.

It was an emotional final few miles into Little Venice and crossing the finish line was overwhelming. At one point during the night I didn’t think that I could make my train that was booked at 14:30, but now I had managed to arrive at 9:48am. I remembered checking my watch at 120 miles and it telling me that the estimated finish time was 11:20, so that goes to show how the final stint went.

None of that mattered though as Dick shook my hand and gave me hug before awarding me with the iconic trophy. The amazing Sam Amend had crossed the line two hours earlier for a well deserved overall win, however I was chuffed to take second place and 1st Male. It was without doubt the hardest win of my ultra career so far, and although it wasn’t the performance I had hoped for, it was one that I will cherish for a very long time….

Part 4 – Reflections

It is without doubt that I owe a huge debt of gratitude to my amazing crew and buddy runners. I would never have made the finish without them, and they are without a doubt the crewing dream team. Thank you all for your help. It means so much.

I would like to thank Keith, Dick and all the GUCR crew for putting on such a wonderful event. The canal running community is an awesome one to be part of and it was lovely to see so many friends along the route, both running and crewing.

I also want to say a huge congratulations to all the runners and crews who completed this beast of a race, and pass on my commiserations to those whose journey ended before you reached Little Venice. I am sure you will be back again in the future to reach that finish.

There are lots of positives for me to take from the race, the biggest one being I didn’t quit. Overall I was pleased with my fueling, and hydration and on another day I think that the pacing was spot on as well. My legs were so strong at the end, that I know there was more to give. I was disappointed with the time, and know deep down that I could and should of done better. Apparently 1 mile took me 30 minutes so there is a good twenty minutes I can improve on at the very least.

I am not sure quite what caused the bad patch, it might have been the heat and humidity, however I am usually pretty good in the heat. Maybe having moved up north recently I have become more sensitive to the warmth. It could just have been that I haven’t run that far for a very long time and the self doubt around my ability to do it caused some anxieties that manifested themselves in some of the symptoms.

The important thing though is what ever happened we got it done and corrected the DNF from 2018… Now I can look forward to the next challenge, whatever that may be.

Throughout those last 40 miles Oli kept saying.. ‘Lets not call it a comeback…’ as he didn’t want to tempt fate…… Maybe now we can call it just that……..

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