Was it the fact that the GUCR was my third event of 100 miles or further in six weekends, an experiment gone wrong, a sore throat, or something else that resulted in the 2017 Grand Union Canal Race being my first ever ultramarathon distance DNF?
The 2017 edition of the Grand Union Canal Race was to be my third consecutive GUCR, and also my third walk of 100 miles or further (GUCR is 145 miles in length) in six weekends (possible reason number 1 for the DNF), but despite that I was excited by the prospect of spending the first day and half of the bank holiday weekend on the towpaths beside canal that wanders its way from Birmingham to London. There is something special about this race. It is like no other. I’m not sure if it is the competitors, the race organisation (which is outstanding), the amused/amazed comments from pedestrians when they find out what we are doing, or what, but this has to be the best race I have ever done. And it is the first 100+ mile race that I have started three times.
The day before the day before the DNF
For the third consecutive year, I had one-way train ticket from London heading for Birmingham and the start of the race. As with the last two years I traveled up to Birmingham on the Friday afternoon, checked in to my hotel, and then walked the short distance to race registration at the Travelodge in Broad Street. This year the race organisers were late arriving to registration, giving competitors plenty of time to catch up with each other. It was a great opportunity to see people that I hadn’t seen since last year’s race, meet some new friends, and share stories about various races and adventures.
The team of organisers eventually arrived, having been caught in Friday afternoon Birmingham traffic, and once registration was completed I moved to O’Neils bar next door where the GUCR runners traditionally have their last proper sit-down meal before the race. I found myself sharing a table with three Thames Ring 250 (and GUCR) veterans and, as the TR250 is my next race, I took the opportunity to ask as many questions as I could. The TR250 is a 250 mile (400km) race that takes in the River Thames, a large portion of the Grand Union Canal, but in the opposite direction to what we would be racing this weekend, and also the Oxford Canal. Whilst I have walked further than 250 miles (when I did the 6 day race in France last year), this is likely to be my biggest challenge to date due to the self-supported nature of the race with checkpoints (and support) only available every 25 miles. It was fascinating to hear their stories, and also of other races they had done, and I could have kept talking to them all night – but with an early start scheduled for the next day I headed back to the hotel straight after dinner, sorted out my kit for the race, and was in bed around 10pm.
The day before the DNF
I was expecting to get a good 6 to 6 ½ hours sleep but at 2:30am I woke up with a pounding headache and sore throat (possible reason number 2 for the DNF) and couldn’t get back to sleep. Eventually I got up, had a shower and an earlier than planned breakfast – porridge, bananas (x2), and a couple croissants – and shortly after 5:30am I left my hotel room, just as my neighbours were staggering in to theirs, and walked down to the race start in Gas Street.
In 2015 I treated the GUCR as a survival test. At that time it was my longest ever walk, and was just three weeks after the Thames Path 100 mile race, so I started conservatively, passed the 100 mile checkpoint in 26 hours and then struggled through the next 45 miles in 17 hours, finishing just after 1am on the Monday morning.
In 2016 I also started conservatively, after only a two week recovery from the Continental Centurions Race where I had broken the NZ records for 100 miles and 24 hours, but went through 100 miles in under 24 hours and finished 6 ½ hours faster than the previous year. I walked the full 145 miles without sitting down between the start and the finish, and spent less than one minute in most of the nine checkpoints along the route. It was one of my best races to date, although I still struggled on the Sunday, taking over 12 ½ hours for the last 45 miles.
This year, my intention was to walk a little faster/harder, but to also have a two minute lie down at each of the checkpoints. The idea being that I would lie down with my feet elevated to give my legs a short rest and, that by doing this, I would have a better last 45 miles on day 2 than I had had the previous two years. With the benefit of hindsight, this experiment may be reason number 3 for my DNF.
At exactly 6am after a few short words from the legendary Dick Kearn (one time GUCR winner, 20+ time race director, and now a member of the organising committee) we were on our way, with me positioned about ¾’s the way back in the field rather than at the very back as usual.
I felt OK through the first 10 miles and upon arriving at the first checkpoint I found a quiet spot and lay down for two minutes with my feet resting on my drop bags.
When I re-joined the race though I found I had lost momentum and was immediately about 20 seconds per kilometer slower than I was before checkpoint 1.
The second checkpoint was at 22 miles but two miles beforehand I suddenly went from feeling OK to feeling like I expected to feel at 120 miles, not 20. I felt exhausted and started looking forward to my next lie down. My Garmin splits show that I didn’t actually slow down, but the last 2 miles through to the checkpoint felt like a long slog and not the easy walk that it should have felt like this early in the race. I had another lie down at the checkpoint, grabbed some fruit from the aid station table, as well as my own plastic bag containing the food I was planning on eating during the next 14 miles through to checkpoint 3 and headed off along the canal.
When I arrived at checkpoint 3 I was greeted with a friendly “we hate you” from one of the runners who was surprised to find that ‘the walker’ had caught him earlier than expected. I commented that I thought I was walking faster than last year (I couldn’t remember my split times from last year but on checking post race, it appears that I was only about 3 or 4 minutes ahead of last year’s schedule) and found a spot to have my two minute lie down.
When I got up again, most of the runners who were at the checkpoint when I arrived were still there. It wasn’t just me who was having a hard day.
I had a quick drink of coke (I wasn’t intending to have coke so early but wasn’t feeling great), grabbed my food for the next 17 miles through to CP4, and headed off again.
It was shortly after this that I caught a female runner whom I won’t name as I don’t want to embarrass her. I didn’t know her too well but we chatted for a bit and she said that as soon as she had finished eating she was going to stop for a wee. Ultra-runners unashamedly talk about all sorts of things and toilet habits are no exception. We talked about how a quick wee stop during a race was easier for a man than a women and after a while she drifted behind me and I continued on my way. A few minutes later she came flying past me again and I asked her if she had had her wee stop. She replied that she had and I said “well done” – probably not the sort of thing you would normally say to a grown women after she has been to the toilet 🙂
I arrived at checkpoint 4, 53 miles into the race, at 6:19pm, after 12 hours and 19 minutes of walking. I thought this was a similar time to last year but I was feeling much worse than I did this time last year and lay down by the canal for my two minute rest/recovery. Because I wouldn’t get to the next checkpoint (70 miles) before dark I put my headtorch into my Ultimate Direction running pack and also got my USB charger out to recharge my Garmin which these days only lasts about 13 hours without recharging. As I left the checkpoint I downed some more coke and also asked one of the checkpoint volunteers to add some hot water to my Pot Noddles which would be the first course of my traditional GUCR Saturday night dinner. This year was the third year I have had dinner while walking along the canal immediately after checkpoint 4. I always start with Pot Noddles (600 calories) followed by Jelly (100 calories) and then another 500 mixed calories (crisps, biscuits, fruit, etc).
It takes a while to eat dinner on the move but it is much more efficient to do this at a slow walking pace than to eat while at the checkpoint. Unlike previous years, I also received comments from people on two separate passing canal boats who both asked “is that Pot Noodles you’re eating?”. The people on the canal boats are always so friendly, but this year they seemed to be more observant than normal.
After dinner I went to get my USB charger out of my UD running pack, but it wasn’t there! In my haste to leave the checkpoint I had left it on the ground beside where I was sitting. A few moments later my Garmin battery died. There is a saying that if it isn’t on Strava then it didn’t happen, and regardless, I like to look back at my race splits, post race, to see what happened, so I opened the MapMyRun app on my phone and clicked the Start button – figuring that if I couldn’t record the race on my watch, then my phone was the next best option. Fortunately when I arrived at the next checkpoint my USB charge was in my bag – thanks to an observant volunteer who must have picked it up for me.
I was really struggling but was looking forward to the short (1 ½ mile) road section that we reach at about 60 miles. Last year I had a bad patch at around this stage but came right when we hit the road and I was hoping for the same this year. Unfortunately it wasn’t to be. I tried to pick up the pace but couldn’t, and by the time I arrived at Navigation Bridge, the 70 mile checkpoint, I was over 30 minutes behind last year’s pace.
Again, I had a 2 minute lie down with my feet elevated. I was beginning to suspect that this experiment wasn’t working, but the two minute rests weren’t about making me feel good today, they were designed to make me feel better over the last 45 miles tomorrow, so I kept with the plan.
After my lie down I put some warmer clothes on as it was starting to get cold now that the sun had gone down, crossed the bridge and headed down the canal with a 600ml bottle of coke and a chocolate bar in my hands.
The day of the DNF
I usually love walking at night and have enjoyed the night section of the GUCR, especially last year, but this wasn’t to be the case this year. It was only 14 miles to checkpoint 6 but it was extremely slow going and I was starting to struggle with tiredness. I had a caffeine tablet and waited for the effects of that to kick in, but nothing. I just couldn’t get going.
I finally arrived at the 84 mile checkpoint at 3:18am and decided that I would have a short sleep – my first sleep in three GUCR attempts. I slept for 20 to 25 minutes but didn’t feel any better. In fact I was now freezing cold. So cold that I accepted an offer of some soup. I hate hot drinks and avoid them at all costs, but I needed something to get me going again.
The GUCR rules state that you are not allowed to be stopped for more than 45 minutes at any one time, but it was 52 minutes after arriving at the checkpoint that I finally got going again, and I didn’t feel any better than when I had stopped. I was now dressed for winter with five layers on top, and if I had had them in my drop bag I would also have been wearing long pants as well – I was that cold.
Fortunately I didn’t wear long pants because a couple hours later the sun was out, and reflecting off the water to make it feel like a 25+ degree day. By the time I got through to 90 miles I had made the decision that I would drop out at the 100 mile checkpoint. I was walking about 3 miles (5km) an hour, which meant that the last 45 miles would take about 15 hours unless something miraculous happened, and at best I wouldn’t get to the 100 mile checkpoint until 9am. Add 15 hours to that and I was looking at a midnight finish. With the Thames Ring 250 only 4 ½ weeks away I rationalised that I would be better off to DNF than spend another whole day walking and potentially jeopardise by recovery from the GUCR and my leadup to the TR250.
By the time I finally spoke to my wife, Ruth at around 8:30am I had slowed even further and was even more certain that I was making the right decision. Ruth reluctantly agreed to come and collect me from the checkpoint at Tring, telling me that this was my only ‘get out of jail free’ card for this year. I said I could catch the train home but she didn’t think it was fair on other passengers to have to put up with the smell of someone who had been walking for 27+ hours. Thanks Ruth for coming to my rescue.
I finally arrived at checkpoint 7 at 9:31am – 27 hours and 31 minutes for 100 miles. Almost 4 hours slower than last year.
The volunteers at the checkpoint tried briefly to talk me in to remaining in the race, or at least having a short sleep before making a decision to withdraw, but I told them that Ruth was on her way to collect me, and that I was happy with my decision to DNF.
I lay in the sun with my feet elevated one last time while I waited for Ruth to arrive, and reflected on my race. I didn’t regret it for a moment. Overall it had been another great adventure. I hadn’t finished in London as planned, but I wasn’t regretting the DNF either.
I removed my shoes and socks and had absolutely no sign of blisters – thanks in no small part to the combination of 2Toms Blister Shield and Injinji Socks that I use (see my blog post about blister prevention here). In my last two long walks I had had a small blister on the inside of each heel, but they were both fine this time.
My legs felt fine too. I still had a bit of a sore throat, but I think it was just one of those days/weekends. Better to happen now than in either of my next two races – the Thames Ring 250 at the end of June or the 6 jours de France (6 day race) in August.
Ultra-distance events are much more of a mental exercise than they are physical and I think I was missing the required mindset this weekend.
One of the benefits of wearing a Fitbit is that it records your cadence – number of steps per minute, or in the case of the graphs below, number of steps per five minutes.
You can see my gradual demise as my cadence slowly reduced from 690 steps every five minutes down to 450 (137 steps per minute down to 90).
The graphs below show my decreasing speed during the race – from 7:30/km pace to 13 minute/km pace.
The Grand Union Canal Race is still my favourite race of all the races I have participated in. Entry is by ballot, as it is always over-subscribed, and I will definitely be entering again next year. If I miss out on the ballot I’ll be involved in some way – probably at that 100 mile checkpoint which was the end of my GUCR this year.
My previous GUCR’s
My second GUCR – 2016 – ironically, I sub-titled this one ‘The mind is stronger than the body’. The opposite to this year 🙂