Grand Union Canal Race – GUCR145 – Beer fuelled ultras

Sunday night and I’m running along a canal approaching Little Venice, swigging a beer whilst maintaining a decent pace. Just behind is my mate Eoin who’s buddying me for this section having been lucky enough to pull a double shift of ‘not pacing’ me. Just behind him is a big fella, drunk, and struggling to keep up. He’d been with his mates enjoying a few (too many) beers in the warm afternoon whilst watching a sporadic stream of shuffling runners come past on the Grand Union. He held the beer out to me as I approached. I warned him I would take it. He kept it out. I took it. He seemed shocked. Then realising he may have massively underestimated me and assumed I was a serious runner decided to give chase for his can of Desperado. It tastes so good.

The temperature has crept steadily throughout the day and is now approximating the seventh circle of hell so this icy cold beer is pretty much heaven in a can. I’m sorely tempted to keep it. He is just about maintaining pace. I reckon I could outrun him. I’m less sure Eoin can having already run more miles in the course of his not pacing duties than he’s ever covered before. It probably wouldn’t be the done thing to thank your ‘not pacer’ by letting him get thumped by a drunk for a beer you stole so I slow a little and pass it back to a red faced lager lout and push on, leaving him bent double, holding a well shaken beer and wondering what sort of runner drinks during a sprint finish. As experiences go this sums up the GUCR more than anything else.

This race is an epic, both in terms of distance and the experience. Previous runners and crew will wax lyrical about the old school feel of the event, a shared experience where everyone becomes family. I had no interest in running it, as in truth I’d never heard of it. I had no interest in running ultras really. I preferred marathons. Turns out they’re a gateway drug. I was talked into a 50 miler and then a 100 miler by running mate Jen. Keen to get some long runs in, ideally in the dark so I didn’t die on the South Downs, I agreed to help buddy clubmate Chris on his attempt to run some awful sounding canal race from Birmingham to London. So somewhere around Slapton Lock (wherever that is) I picked up a slightly soiled Chris and we made our way onwards. Just as (actual) pacing him on the Autumn 100 previously had planted a seed that lead eventually to me running it, so did this bout of buddying. Between Slapton Lock and when I handed him over to Lennie around Watford I was evidently infected by the bug which saw me enter the ballot for 2018 race, mostly hoping I didn’t win. A combination of luck in the ballot and bad planning saw me scheduled to run the Thames Path 100, the Milton Keynes marathon the following day, and the GUCR145 just 3 weeks later. Three races for 2018. All in May.

Although I finished the TP100 it was at times an awful experience. A chance buddying up with a great bloke called Jon stopped me dropping mid-race or from whipping out my phone and emailing the GUCR145 to advise of my intended withdrawal from the race. 100 flat miles in searing heat was killing me. What business did I have even contemplating nearly 50% further with just 3 weeks gap? Even the jubilation of finishing didn’t little to re-awaken my enthusiasm. Far better runners than me were advising it was stupid to do both. My race instruction letter was left unopened on the side table at home from fear of even seeing the maps. As the days passed the pendulum swung from ‘I’ll email to drop out tomorrow’ towards ‘let’s do this!’. I even did a brief detour of my usual training loop to take in a whole one mile stretch of the canal. That’s the route recce covered then. The pendulum never made the full swing but with a week to go it was hovering around ‘yeah maybe I should see how far I can get’. I’d managed the marathon the day after TP100 at a respectable 5h15 as official pacer. 126 miles in three days was a bloody good go at training for 145 and assuming I ever got lucky in the GUCR ballot again I would unlikely be as well trained (if a little under-recovered).  I hastily assembled some buddy runners, opened the maps on Wednesday, purchased food on Thursday and packed bag on Friday.

The Event

It’s Saturday and after an awful nights sleep in the Birmingham Travelodge (it really is as noisy as they warn you, three beers is recommended to get some sleep) I’m stood with a lot of actual ultra runners in a side street by the canal wondering why my ankle is aching already and can’t bend. Then I realise I’ve done my shoes up too tight. This doesn’t help the feeling of being an amateur.

Although I don’t have a crew I have buddies set up for much of the race and Cloë is due to pop up in places to assist and helping to mastermind the logistics. I’ve also got the added bonus of mates Karen and Lou, both crewing for other runners, who I can fall back on if needed.

With a heart-felt and low key speech we set off on a run which for most of us will take the majority of two days. If an employer demanded the same of its staff with a maximum 40 minute break they’d be prosecuted. We’ve chosen to do this. Fortunately it’s a cool misty morning and I just concentrate on avoiding tripping on the many raised sections of path and keeping the pace down. My ‘schedule’ I hastily assembled from the Facebook group is based on my TP100 timings as a best case and 1 minute per mile slower for a more realistic target. This gives 36 and 38hrs and crucially means the ever-supportive wife will still be in London visiting family and able to give me a lift home in the event I finish. I try not to dwell on the fact I forgot to fill my soft bottles before starting so the run to the first aid station is fuelled on some leftover Lucozade I happened to have from the walk to the start. It’s stuff like this that remind me I’m an idiot at times.

The first section of the race pass quickly. A bit too quickly. I have to make a conscious effort to slow. I don’t want any miles that start in single digits. Much of the first few stations after the trip hazard route from Birmingham are very runnable. Checkpoint 1 comes and I fill up bottles. The group I’ve been running with since the start seem to disband after the checkpoint and I’m mostly on my own so stick the iPod on to help the miles pass, head on to checkpoint 2 after clambering through a fallen tree, thankful it’s here and not at mile 78 when I doubt I’d have the mobility to do much more than stare at it waiting for rot and nature to take it’s course.

I borrowed this photo from someone, but I can’t remember who, if you then please advise for a credit!

Just before checkpoint 2 is a café and I dive in, down an icy cold coke in the queue and select what I presume is a Calippo and a strong coffee. I’m tempted by the fry-up but service seems slow and when I witness staff reheating a fried egg in a microwave I get the impression this would be a breakfast that would take some chewing. Darting into the check point for some nibbles I’m marginally behind best case schedule which is about where I want to be.

A photographer on route gets some awesome photos of keen runners storming down the towpath and one of me wandering along with a coffee looking like I’m out for a stroll. Excellent.

Photo thanks to Ross Langton

After keeping the ‘Calippo’ for as long as I can I give in and eat it. It’s awful. It’s actually a Robinson Fruit Shoot lolly. You might ask how bad a lolly can be. The answer is very. It’s a frigging abomination and doesn’t deserve to even be in the same freezer as a Calippo never mind the same shaped tube. Disguntled I plod on, completely unrefreshed.

At around marathon distance I hit Royal Leamington Spa, site of my second year of University. I was probably 20 when I was last here. Back then I couldn’t have run a bath and the only sport I got was winding up our more unbalanced housemate. One time we stole his bedroom door whilst he was in the shower and denied all knowledge of the act. He slept in the cupboard that night to guilt us into returning it. We didn’t until morning.

All along the course we’re asked by passers by where we’re running to or how far we’re going. Two dog walkers are enjoying their Starbucks on a beautiful Saturday morning. When hearing we’re on route to London running 145 miles, one lady full on spits her mouthful of coffee out in shock. I’ve only seen it done in low budget comedy films but apparently it can happen in the real world as well. I’m cautious for the next few miles, checking for discarded banana skins, workmen swinging long ladders and glaziers carrying sheets of glass across my path just in case I’ve passed into some alternative comedy dimension.

Mile 32 – Fosse Road Bridge and I’m 10 minutes up on best case, an excuse to stop for a Mars bar and mess about on Facebook. I’m finding my stupid video updates are going down well with those sat at home enjoying their weekend.

Coming up to checkpoint 3 I realise I’m getting increasingly ahead of best case schedule and need to find a better way to slow and use my time productively. My main regret of TP100 was not stopping in one of the packed pubs lining the route. I’ve promised myself I will redress this today and finally stumble on a pub that’s open. Sipping an ice cold beer at the Two Boats (very reasonable prices, staff don’t complain if you smell like a badger) and a fellow competitor is a little taken aback at my choice compared to his coke. Once again I may be ruining my reputation as a pro-athlete.

Up ahead lies danger. A swan the size of a small family car is blocking the towpath, protecting her brood of cygnets. A passing runner coming towards me manages to sprint past, followed by hissing and much anger from the mummy swan. I’m less able to turn a decent speed so reach a stand off, staring at the foul tempered fowl. Another runner out for a Saturday session approaches from the other side. The swam alternates, giving each of us her death stare in turn. Whilst attention is diverted we alternate creeping closer in a high risk game of ‘What’s the time Mr Wolf?’. Eventually I’m close enough to leg it, awaiting inevitable pecks on my legs. Fortunately she’s too slow and I make it past and can carry on with my gentle plod to checkpoint 3 and some hot food to keep me going.

Braunston Turn comes up at 44 miles and the sun is relentless. There’s a couple of ways of navigating this turn, the best is to cross the two iron bridges 93 and 94 as just between is this sign and a worthy photo moment. I’m joined by a couple of other runners, also increasingly baked and we manage to find a waterways tap and soak ourselves liberally. If running this event again in hot conditions I’d definitely go for more than 1 litre of fluid capacity.

Somewhere around Blisworth tunnel I’m met by clubmate Warren. In what will become a familiar theme this weekend he’s turned up with Calippo lollies. Lots and lots of Calippo lollies. I’m amazingly pleased to see the lollies. I mean Warren. We chat as I demolish four and down ice cold water. I feel pretty good still but the temperature is climbing and the cool misty morning in Birmingham seems a distant memory. For marketing executives reading this, Calippo are the daddy of ice lollies and essential for runners in the summer.

50 miles passes bang on 10 hours. I’m pretty much on best case timings still and feeling strong. I force myself from the mental path of realising I have ‘just 95 miles’ left as that’s barely shorter than my longest run before. Instead I concentrate on some vintage iPod tracks and enjoy a blast from the past as Alanis Morissette sings ‘Ironic’, once again proving she knows as much about irony as I do about clean eating as a I force down some Reese’s pieces.

55 miles comes in 11.5 hrs. I’ve passed the aid station which came up a lot further than I was expecting. The food is a little disappointing so I break into an emergency Super Noodle I packed and eat that on the walk out.

Stopping to admire some cute baby ducks at 61 miles and I’m picking up extra distance so now close to half an hour behind best case schedule. I’ve not got lost (yet) so the extra distance is either Garmin error or a very approximated route. Not a huge issue but when the aid station is advertised precisely as 53.1m and you’re at nearly 55, out of water and hanging out your arse it’s a little hard to focus and I suffer a bad patch where I can’t really be arsed with all this running lark.

Right on cue I get a message from Lou, she’s tended to the needs of her runner and is waiting for me at bridge 48 with a cold can of beer. I’m at bridge 45. I can either continue to walk like a girl and get a warm beer, or run and get a cold one. No contest. Trying not to worry what it says about my motivation that only a beer can get me moving I lay down the fastest miles of the day as I race towards refreshment and alcohol. It’s still cold. An ice cold can of Brewdog, with some sort of fruit twist that hits just where needed. This photo is genuinely not posed but I’ve managed to get the can perfectly orientated to show the logo. I hope Brewdog are reading this next time they need a brand ambassador.

Running on from the beer and my legs are seemingly loving this change of pace and I’m carried all the way to the uphill road as we pass over the Blisworth Tunnel. Cold beer is ace. Warm sports drink is not. Coming into Stoke Brueme expecting to see Eoin to take up ‘not pacer’ duties and instead get snapped by Mick and wife, out enjoying a late afternoon pint. I’m envious.

I find Eoin who’s been waiting a while as my pace has been dropping off. I start (I hope) well but soon enter another pretty glum patch. The poor guy is spending his Saturday evening with the running equivalent of Eeyore. My mood isn’t helped by the never appearing check point. Many, many hours later the Navigation Bridge arrives and I’m in a lull even the hot food and seeing the friendly faces of Sheila and Russell Rose can’t lift. Food has to help so I force down boiling soup whilst mentally preparing to strip off and put on night time layers. Having been caught out at the TP100 by the surprise cold I’m going for base layer, long sleeved and hooded top with vest over top. I shove a spare tee in the bag as a precaution and pull on a beanie hat and torch. Time to run. Or at least walk.

Eoin only has another 5 miles to endure with me before changeover. Cloë and my next ‘not pacer’ are waiting for me at the Black Horse pub. They’re aiming to get there about 10:40pm. I’m likely to be late so push as best I can. The night is still warm and I know from living around here that after passing the scary iron aqueduct (I don’t like crossing it in daylight, in the dark you feel rather than see the massive drop to one side and the certain death below) there’s an annoying kink in the canal before the pub where you run away from your destination for seemingly no reason. Passing several lads smoking unusual cigarettes on route to a party in the woods (they’ve not seen the weather forecast) we hear two girls up ahead on a bench in the dark. Expecting another instance of the finest youths of Milton Keynes, smashed out their faces on cheap cider and Buckfast it’s a welcome shock to see club mates Susie and Emma huddled in the dark waiting to support the stupid endeavour.

Shocked again at the pub to see not just next buddy Neil and Cloë, but also school chum John (who I forget to berate for the awful train journey to Birmingham the day before – he works at Network Rail so all train issues are his fault) and club mate Andy. Cheesy photo and hugs all around follow. I do my best impersonation of a man who hasn’t already run 75 miles and I’m handed from Eoin to Neil like a slightly smelly pass-the-parcel.

Neil has the makings of a substantial picnic in his bag, with the main ingredient being beer. Necking a Yazoo milkshake first to line the stomach we set off into the night accompanied by the ‘psst’ of beer cans. Part of me was dreading this section through Milton Keynes. I’m basically only halfway but been running for what seems like an entire day. The route is seldom further than a 5 minute taxi or 10 minute walk from my house. It would be so easy to drop. With a fast taxi I could be whisked to the aid station at Fenny Stratford to collect my bags and back home inside 15 minutes. Instead of dropping and with company of Neil we drink beer and talk rubbish. It’s just like a night in a pub except we’re walking at the same time with the odd jog when the beer burps subside. Getting quietly drunk is exactly what I need about now.

As we pass Woolstone there’s some flashing lights ahead. Probably car headlights or a night club. They seem very bright though. Getting nearer it’s clear they’re lightning but with no thunder or rain. This is the localised storms we were warned of. Thankfully they seem very localised so we’ll probably miss them. Minutes later it’s clear we’re not going to as the sky falls. Neil makes the very sensible suggestion to run to the next aid station at Bridge 99 so we finish off the beers and make haste to cover. Running mate Glyn, local ultra legend, is manning the aid station but I fail to recognise him in the downpour. I wolf down a hot dog and join the other runners staring into the alternating gloom and blinding flashes hoping the storm will pass. Eventually it’s clear that’s wishful thinking so on with rain coats and off we go. The rain has somewhat dampened our romantic wander through the night. The thunder and lightning is indeed very, very frightening and Neil makes repeated attempts to grasp my hand which he pretends are accidental and something to do with me being unable to run in a straight line. His original plan was to leave me at Leighton Buzzard, mile 90, but he resolves to stick with me to 100 before handing over to Stephen.

We cover ground well for a while, only making one minor error at a bridge crossing but by mile 93 I’m having a dark spell again and struggling to manage much more than a shuffle. Neil unfortunately needs to get back to civilisation and nice smelling people so bids me farewell somewhere on a tow path towards Slapton Lock. I whip out my DAB radio for company only to find it’s gone dead or broken with the rain so it’s just me and my thoughts now.

It’s early morning and I’m struggling. The dawn didn’t bring the relief I expected. No singing at geese and talking to cows like the Autumn 100. Probably a mixture of exhaustion and the last of the beer wearing off. The mild niggle in my shoe that I ignored has got progressively worse and at some point I give in, sit on a lock gate and pull my shoe off. Big blister. Huge blister. The biggest. If only Trump was there to tweet about it. I clean up my foot as best I can, apply some tape and clear out my shoes. Most of the towpath falls out and a sweet wrapper. I’ve never worn gaiters before to keep stones out. Now I wish I had.

Eventually I reach Slapton Lock. It’s broad daylight. It was also broad daylight last year when I took on buddy duties for Chris. That’s because it was still Saturday evening. I’m here Sunday morning. Not even the same bloody day he got here. I think the key difference is food thickness. Chris was very particular at this crew point on only eating watermelon of a certain thickness. I’ve foolishly eaten food of all thickness, widths and depths. That’s why I’m slower, nothing to do with the 4 stone weight disadvantage and lack of training.

I’m coming up to 100 miles on the course (more on my watch) and just need to make it to the next aid station as Stephen is due to join me. Having covered this race twice and run up to 250 miles on the Thames Ring he is Mr Miyagi and I am the student. I have no idea what to do after 100 miles and precious little idea what to do before that so I feast on a breakfast of Lucozade borrowed from Neil as a parting gift and Reese’s pieces, and trudge on waiting to find sensei Stephen. Seeing photos of me hitting the Grand Junction aid station I now realise how monumentally fudged I was. I later learn the checkpoint timing sheet had some pretty unflattering (but accurate) comments attached to my name.

Lou was waiting with her runner and once again took pity on me, forced food at my face, and even helped change shoes. Gradually with some coffee, cold quiche and ketchup life came back and Stephen walked in right on cue. He’d been woken by the baby at an ungodly hour so had decided to jog down to see me, a distance of many miles, rather than take public transport. In training for forthcoming races with long kit lists he also carried all his worldly possessions in his backpack. Sadly there wasn’t enough room left for me to fit in so I’d have to run. I still had on my three tops and sensei politely advised I may want to strip down to one as it was getting warm. Yep I’ve reached the point I need help to know what to wear.

With a strong coffee in my travel mug (seriously bin the stupid ‘race cups’ people and get a big sturdy insulated mug with a lid) we set off. It was morning. I was over 100 miles. There was just 45 miles left.

15 miles with Stephen passes fairly quickly. He’s full of stories of much harder races to take my mind off this one. The blister I left too late to attend to now feels like most of my foot. It’s swelling and certain steps feel like I’m trying to stand on a gel-filled cool pack. Not ideal for stable balance. Painfully ambling somewhere between Berkhampstead and Watford, Steve tries to motivate me to try a little run again. Oddly the change of foot strike makes my blister more bearable. I notice that if I can knock out another five miles I will have less than a marathon to finish. A marathon is a manageable chunk. I’ve run 100 odd. I can do that. I am one of those people stupid enough to say ‘It’s just a marathon’. I hear a croaky voice mutter ‘fuck it’ and speed up. I realise it’s me. My legs have done little in way of speed since running for a beer at Blisworth and they’re surprisingly willing so I go with it. At one point I check the watch and I’m (briefly) doing six minute mile pace. Best slow down a little as that’s 5k PB pace.

We pass the 115 mile point I handed over a slightly broken Chris to clubmate Lennie the previous year and the visual image of a mighty runner huddled in blankets on a picnic chair whilst people poke brownie and watermelon at him comes to mind. Chris is a proper runner. He does strength and conditioning training, has key focused races where he aims to podium if not outright win. He knows the names of muscles and ligaments and how to optimise his performance. I tend to bounce from one race to another, drink too much and thought Gluteus Maximus was that bloke out of the Gladiator who’d never quite got over his family being slaughtered. All these doubts are bouncing in my head as I reach the point he finally had to DNF (I still maintain Lennie broke him, he claims Chris was like that when he got him and blamed the previous keeper). Although I’m many, many hours after he’d reached this point, I was now running further than Chris, admittedly he was fighting some sort of bug and picked up a knee injury on route so it’s not really a fair comparison. Still, a mixture of elation and outright fear hit me.

I run until we’re a mile short of the aid station and recovered much of the delay and nearly back on ‘best case’ timings. Knackered but happy to walk in the final mile. Which is a little longer. A lot longer. Several miles later we’re still not there and much of the recovered time has been stolen by mystery miles in baking sunshine. Stephen runs off route for Callipo from Tesco. The only thing better than seeing him return with a cool lolly is when he pulls out a box full and we demolish three each before finally rolling into Springwell Lock aid station and navigating the treacherous lock crossing to the hot food. I’m told I’m in 25th place which sounds plainly wrong and I wonder who messed up the timings for me to be placed so highly. The crew are amazing and rustle up an enticing fry-up that sadly I struggle to eat. Stephen obliges rather than see it go to waste. In the background he and Cloë have been messaging back and forth and sorted out my buddy duties on route. He’ll stick with me for a few more miles before heading off to enjoy his Sunday with someone less stinky, leaving me a couple of miles on my own before Eoin steps up again for his second bout of keeping me out the canal and enduring my roller coaster of emotions.

The miles pass with the usual leap frogging of the same handful of runners as we each vary from death march to some approximation of running until a friendly face pops up with an ice cold Coke. Eoin and I are re-united like a bad cop film. I’m obviously the broken, gristled, world-weary detective on his final days to retirement. Eoin is the up and coming recruit, likely to be tainted by my bad habits and soon to be found pushing suspects down staircases (or just signing up to ultra races).

With one last aid station to go it’s just about keeping forward motion going. Run when able, walk when you can’t, bounce alarmingly when you’re forced off the towpath due to construction works and have to negotiate a big b&stard bouncy jetty pontoon on the canal instead. Then swear a bit when you’re diverted through Tesco car park and witness people doing normal Sunday bank holiday activities like shopping for a relaxed BBQ party.

Passing along an increasingly grim stretch of canal (let’s just pretend that’s a massive dog poo as the alternative mammal is a bit too gross to consider) I’m desperate for the turning at Bulls Bridge Junction. The elation is slightly dampened by some collapsed safety fencing. Rather than protecting people on the tow path from the building site it’s now completely blocked the path and everyone has to painfully clamber into the dangerous building site to avoid the fence. Hey Alanis Morrisette, that is actually irony.

The heat is somehow still building and taking a toll as runners start to slow and bunch up. Earlier in the race it was hard to tell from a distance which was runner and which was buddy, now it’s clearly evident as the walking dead shuffle onwards at alarming angles, each accompanied by an owner just hoping to finish this thing without getting sicked on or needing to fish their mate out the canal that is now mostly goose poo and cholera.

Finally we reach a water tap just in front of the aid point and I soak everything and fill bottles before taking a final sit down. We’re joined by the various zombies we’ve been switching places with. It’s evident that if this was the Grand National the volunteers would be erecting screens and reaching for the bolt gun. Instead we dose up on coke and press on. We’re all going to make it. The platitudes we share with other runners are now statements of fact “I WILL see you at the finish line.”

Grandmaster Stephen said to think of this final stretch as a half marathon. That’s all that’s left. Mileage is coming up increasingly long. I’m looking at 153 and ‘a smidge’ for the finish line. I have no idea how long a smidge is. Or what it is. But I know I hate it. So we just push on and try a jog. I decide to run until I record 145 miles on the Garmin. Some sums see me realise that with effort I could actually reach 145 miles in 36 hours and at least partly achieve my ‘best case’ goal time. Eoin points out that distance would also see him break his longest run to date. We run. It’s close. Somewhere around 144 miles he’s hit his goal. The press-ganged HM runner has done back to back runs and beaten his longest run today along the Sahara stretch of the Grand Union, dodging dead fish, stoned locals and unspeakable filth on the way. Let’s get the double. Passing some other runners again I’m pushing full out, trying one more ‘fuck it’, feeling like the home stretch of a parkrun (that’s a far more sensible distance to run), checking my watch seemingly every ten feet. With a mouth full of sick and a body temperature sufficient to cook eggs I clock 145 miles with seconds to spare from 36 hours. A gloriously pointless way to get the miles done but immensely satisfying to (sort of) get my optimistic time target.

So that just leaves eight and a smidge (bloody smidge) miles left. Eoin soaks my hat from his bladder (his race vest one, not his biological one) and updates the people on social media. My plan is walk a mile, run a mile until 150 then just run it in. I’m gradually cooling down and think there’s one last burst of ‘fuck it’ left in the tank. More sums mean I might just be able to get 38 hours if I can keep to 15 minutes miles average. The mile of walking ends sooner than I’d like. The mile of running I can’t sustain and slow to a walk. A very slow walk. Six and a smidge miles left. A 10k. It’s so close to being possible but also so far. Why do all my races come down to the wire to achieve arbitrary times? Why am I such an arse?

My walking pace is now so slow I can’t really afford not to run so we try a jog. Some of me is definitely jogging. The bottom part is walking. I look like a messed up kids book where you flip the pages to make amusing people “Look children, the head of a red-faced sunburnt man, the body of a jogger and the legs of an old fella with rickets, isn’t that funny!”. I realise that my foot doesn’t hurt as much anymore. Wise sensei Stephen had foretold that the bouncy blister would burst at some point and whilst I may never be able to remove my sock due to puss I can bear weight a lot better so I try and speed up. I’m feeling better. The weather is finally cooling a little and the tow path has some shade at last.

We click past 150 miles and I start to think the 38hrs could be possible. A parkrun left and bigger buildings on the horizon. I’m just waiting for the time to use the final ‘fuck it’. Too soon and I’ll end up walking it in, too late and I’ll kick myself.

152.5 miles and it’s time to see what is left. It’s end of the night at the student pub time. Empty your pockets onto the bar and see what you’ve got in shrapnel as your notes are long since spent. Hopefully you have enough for a final pint. It’s with that thought in mind that I accept the beer from the (initially) friendly drunk and take a long cool swig of the rapidly foaming drink, handing back with reluctance and self-preservation, slowing just enough for a safe handover like in-flight refuelling of war planes. Garmin later confirms that drunk men can briefly keep up 10 minute miles when in pursuit of their beer and hot idiots can down half a can at the same pace.

We’re definitely in London now and the path is crowded. Doing my best to be polite I’m picking out hazards ahead (or ‘people’ as they might want to be called) and requesting clearance, “Fat sweaty runner on your left, coming through please!”. There’s a seemingly mountainous bridge ahead and Eoin does everything he can to convince me it’s just a sloped bridge when I can clearly see clouds at the top. Up and over, suffering the effects of altitude sickness I do my best to keep some pace. Towpath works ahead see us need to leave the path, ascend and cross a road. Eoin seems keen to observe the green cross code, I’m less bothered but need his help to find the way back down to the canal. Thankfully he finds it but can’t help asking if maybe I’ve pushed on a little too early. I might have.

153 miles. Just the absolute b&stard of the smidge to go and I’m rapidly coming to the end of my last ‘fuck it’. I’ve seen the iconic photos. The finish is by the canal, with some railings. There’s plastic sheeting on the railings with times written on. It’s probably the least impressive finish line in the world but that’s what I need to see. Successive railings are empty save for the usual adverts for dodgy home working jobs and church fetes. Finally I think I see something in the distance. It looks like the finish. It has to be the finish or I’m done. I may have lost Eoin somewhere. The poor guy has managed a monster distance weekend and been asked to do speed work at the end without the benefit of lunacy, beer or caffeine. My soft flasks are long since emptied and my delightful duck run sees one fly out my vest for someone else to recover. 7 minute miles may not seem like speedwork on a good day but right now it’s all I can manage and I cross the line to be recorded dead-on 38h00m. I’ve bloody done it.

The assembled supporters including Cloë were too shocked to even record my momentous sprint finish so it will live on in my mind as a finish worthy of Sir Roger Banister breaking the 4 minute mile. Other people may have a different view and witnessed something akin to a cheap wardrobe falling downhill. They’re obviously wrong and can’t prove otherwise.

Collapsing under the weight of the medal I sit on a chair and try to compose myself whilst drinking gallons of water. As well as Cloë I also have Steve and his mate Dave who have come out again to witness the climax of a journey that started seemingly several days ago in a different county where I didn’t ache everywhere, have a puss-filled sock, sunburnt neck or want to vomit. Happy times. I think Cloë is mostly pleased I’m not dead and haven’t been found face down in the canal.

Some hard races it can take several days for the jubilation, relief and gratification to come and wipe away the agony and pain. This isn’t one of those. I’ve been up for 39 hours but I loved this race beyond all reason. It’s stupid, pointless and ridiculously low key. It should not be this good but somehow is.

Biggest thanks to Cloë and my supporters and buddy runners. It was a long way and would have felt even longer without assistance.

Race Tally –

  • Beers – 5 and a stolen half (not enough)
  • Callipo – 7 and one dodgy knock-off Fruit Shoot that wasn’t a patch (about right)
  • Blisters – 1 the size of my foot. Basically my left foot is mostly blister.
  • Number of socks that I can take off – 1
  • Race starters – 98
  • Race finishers – 54
  • Finish position – 22 (yeah I actually gained positions between the final aid stations, almost like I know what I’m doing)

6 thoughts on “Grand Union Canal Race – GUCR145 – Beer fuelled ultras

  1. Very entertaining account! It does sound epic, and also contains more beer than I would have thought athletically sensible. Ultras are a strange world indeed. I’ll be content with my 50k and 100k in 2020 but your talk of gateway drugs made me smile. 2021 perhaps?


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