Grand Union Canal Race 25-28/08/2001
6am on the Saturday morning of the August Bank Holiday saw me lining up with 40 other adventurous/foolhardy souls in Gas Street basin in Birmingham. The task which we had chosen to accept was to run/walk/stumble and crawl to little venice in London via the length of the grand Union canal, slightly over 145miles in the next 45hours.
We were allowed to rest for up to 40 mins at a time, but of course each stop made it less likely you would complete the race in the timescale. Also a long rest invited the possibility of strained muscles seizing up completely.
I set off with Ramona a running friend without whom I would have been blissfully unaware of the GUC races existance. Ramona had a lot more experience of running long races than myself so I was only too happy to be guided by her pace at the start and share the excellent services of her support crew. Her husband Andy had hired a camper van with beds and even a toilet. This race was going to be a test of endurance for the support crews as well as the runners.
The first hour or so we started off at the back and got chatting to some interesting characters that had done the death valley race. This was quite worrying if such experienced racers were at the back of the field. We left them behind as we got into our race pace and mile after mile slowly disappeared beneath our feet. We caught a few more runners and chatted with them. Most of the people we talked too had attempted the race before, but all had failed to finish for a variety of reasons. This wasn't filling me with confidence.
However we were continuing to overtake, and by midday we found that Ramona had got first place in the women's race, but there was still a long way to go to hold onto it. The temperature was really beginning to warm up now and touched 32 degrees at times. I was keeping well covered up from the sun, and had a small sponge on a string, which I would throw in the canal now and again to squeeze the water over myself to keep cool. This meant I didn't have to drink vast quantities of water. Later in the race we learned that a number of runners had dropped out due to dehydration, so I am sure it helped.
Aidan and Stuey my support crew arrived but due to a problem with the car had to leave again to get another, but at this point I was still able to match my pace with Ramona and receive help from her support crew. A special thanks to Vic for lifting my heavy kit bag out to me each time.
On and on we went I was mercifully free from blisters and other aches and pains at this point, but when we had a scheduled 30min stop to eat, I found I had stiffened and it was difficult to get started again. Into the night we ran and even when the sun went down on Saturday night the temperature remained high, and although I ran without a top on I remained excessively hot till nearly dawn. We had some excitement in the middle of the night as we were diverted around a festival in Milton Keynes and had to crawl over and around a number of fences. Luckily by this time we had Andy and the other members of Ramona's support crew were taking turns to run with us, and could help with the navigation and provided extra torch power.
Even with the extra illumination some parts of the towpath were too overgrown to risk running on, a small hole covered by grass could easily turn an ankle, which would be the end of the race with 70miles still to go. As the night continued it became harder and harder to pace myself with Ramona, I could only run at one pace and could only walk at one pace , and it was getting harder and harder to start and stop.
Early Saturday morning after nearly 20 hours of running together I had to make the hard decision to part company With Ramona, there was a 40 minute rest planned in the schedule hopefully to grab some sleep, but I was too concerned that the rest would make my legs stiffen up so I pushed on alone into the night. I was very glad now to have Aidan and Stuey with me to support me.
Dawn came and thankfully the Sunday was not as hot as the previous day, but it did rain at one point which made life difficult running with a coat on and soaking wet. Luckily it didn't last for too long. The day certainly seemd endless, but gradually the miles slipped away.
I had run in the same pair of silver shadow trainers and 1000 mile running socks for 90 miles, and with liberal use of talculm powder had avoided blisters, however my ankles had begun to ache through the constant runnng on uneven ground. The left one in particular was giving me a problem and on examination there was a spreading red patch just above the ankle at the front. I strapped the ankle and put on a pair of adventure racing shoes hoping for some extra support and it seemed to work for a while.
I got to the 100mile mark and treated myself to a few sips from a can of Boddingtons that Aidan and Stuey had ready for me. I think those runners who were at the checkpoint and had retired from dehydration thought me mad, but it was an important psycholgical milestone. Only 45 miles to go, but things were really starting to get tough.
I had tried to take my shoes off at each stop to check for blisters, but found the effort to get the left shoe back on excruciating as the foot had swollen. The answer to this was not to take the shoe off again, it remained welded to my foot for the rest of the race, I dare not look inside it for any blisters or problems as I would not be able to get it back on.
By now I was seriously beginning to doubt whether I could get to the line in the 45hour cut off point. Two things kept me going. Firstly if I retired Ramona would soon know about it when she got to a checkpoint. I knew she was still in the race because we saw her support crew regularly and I knew she was not far behind. The fact that she was continuing helped to keep me going and I hoped that the knowledge that I was still going was helping her motivation. Secondly, this hurt so much that there was no way I wanted to go through this amount of pain again. I knew that if I failed to get through I would have to attempt the race again in the future, best to suffer more now and get it over with.
On and on we went, I vaguely remember passing through Hemel Hempstead, it was about this time that I started devouring Neurofens like they were smarties, they didn't seem to reduce the pain any, but I hoped that they were helping to control the swelling, and I was scared that if I did not take them the pain would get worse.
It seemed like an eternity later that I found myself approaching the checkpoint with 12 miles to go. It was just starting to get dark. I was surprised to be told that I was in 6th place, and that the next runners were over an hour behind, but one of them was Ramona so I was determined to keep going so we would both finish. I walked away from that checkpoint and waited till I was out of sight before I tried to run as it seemed to take forever to build up from an agonised hobble into something approaching a slow jog, I used all my powers of determination to keep going for as long as possible before I had to slow to a walk. I figured I must now be quite close to the next rest stop. but after walking for what seemed like ages I came to a spot that I recognised on my map, and found I had travelled less than a mile in total. I was very demoralised at this point and would have given up if I could have, but I had no money or phone, so needed to get to the next checkpoint.
I pushed on and things started to get even worse. I had not expected the hallucinations that followed, the bushes at the side of the canal were turning into evil creatures with knifes or witches and demons all moving slightly and looking at me. luckily they turned back into bushes as I got close to them, apart from once when they turned out to be a couple on a bench. That scared me worse when they didn't turn into bushs.
Eventually I reached the stop with 6 miles to go. Stuey and Aidan were invaluable at this point. They would not let me consider quitting with just 6 miles to go. I tried to lie down and rest put the pain in my legs was too great I decided I might as well suffer whilst walking and get it over with. So with more neurofen inside me I set off for the final 6 miles. Hallucinations continued to plague me though they no longer scared me as I was getting used to them, I was really starting to lose it badly now, it was like being very drunk, I am sure I was staggering a bit and as I got closer to the finish I saw some police, and was concerned they would arrest me for drunk and disorderly.
I did manage to run twice on this final stretch but only for a couple of hundred yards each time. I tried to tell myself that every 20 minutes I would manage a mile at walking pace, but each time I thought I had been walking for 20minutes I would look at the watch and only a minute had passed. So I counted steps a 100 at a time on my fingers.
About 2hrs 30 mins later I did spot some lights and movement ahead of me on the canal, it would have been embaressing to have attempted to try and run across the line, so I just staggered into a waiting chair that stuey and Aidan directed me to. Dick Kearn the organiser presented me with a very nice trophy, (I didn't have the strength to stand and recieve it).
Although by now it was nearly 1am on Monday morning I would have liked to have waited for Ramona to cross the line, but there was no guarantee that I could stay conscious that long, also I had to consider my support crew especially Aidan who still had to drive us all home. Aidan and Stuey got me home ok, but getting to sleep was not so easy, liberal applications of neurofen gel to leg muscles was necessary, but once it kicked in I was dead to the world for 8 hours.