After my overly long blog on the actual fun of running 145 (and 8.5) miles along the GUCR, thought I’d do some advice for first timers in future to aid them in their quest. There are a lot of blog posts about experiences but not many with simple advice so here goes.
Basics – 145 (and a bit) mile race from Birmingham to Little Venice in London, held the second May bank holiday, starts 6am Saturday with a 45 hour cut off (so 3am Monday morning). Simple point to point race so need to plan travel to start and from finish.
Entry – You need to register your interest to join the following years ballot, this is typically 1st July. The NEW AND IMPROVED official website is here which is now a great user friendly experience. A good source of information is the FB group. The race is oversubscribed so assuming stays the same you register your interest on SI Entries website and put your name in a ballot. If you win you stump up the cash also on SI Entries to confirm entry. Options for entry are supported (as in you will have own crew) and unsupported (you will not have a crew and require organisers to feed you).
Preparation / Training – I complete a half dozen short ultras and three 100 milers in advance of this. I felt it was enough to prepare me and I finished. After 50 or so miles the length is just a matter of slower pace, more walk breaks and making progress. The race is flat so something like Thames Path 100 is good preparation but at only 3 weeks before is a little too close. The Country to Capital Ultra features the final 10-12 miles of this race as a taster and is early Jan so good to start the training off with.
Travel & Accommodation – Once in, book your hotel in Birmingham. The race registration is normally at the Travelodge Birmingham Central, 230 Broad St, Birmingham B15 1AY. If you book ahead you can get a room for around £40. It’s a pretty noisy hotel but then anything within walking distance to the start will be on a Friday night.
At registration you need to sign your waiver, show your race numbers with filled in emergency details on the rear, and if you want to pay a £10 deposit for a British Waterways Key to access the taps and toilets on route (worth it). You can register on the morning of the race but most opt to register the night before. If you keep an eye on train offers you can get some good deals. I paid £6 for a Milton Keynes to Birmingham train and it’s about a 10 minute walk to start.
Night Before – Typically after registration most people head across the road to O’Neil’s pub opposite, meet up with other runners and if sensible drink enough beers to help them sleep through the noise of a Friday night in Birmingham. Worth noting nothing will be open the following morning for breakfast or last minute purchases so worth popping into the Salisbury opposite and buying breakfast and provision. Don’t forget water for your bottles as there is no facility at the start for topping up water bottles and it’s nearly 11 miles to first checkpoint. Go back to hotel, set a dozen alarms and stick everything on charge (phone, battery packs, GPS watch, iPod etc).
Morning Of The Race – Assuming pre-registered there is little to do at the start other than drop your bag off (it was two bags for unsupported, recently changed to one) and eat some snacks on the start line so arriving 5:30 for the 6am start is probably sufficient. Listen to the briefing, and then set off on a little jog. Start is at Gas Street Basin (B1 2DS) and about a 5-10 minute slow walk from the Travelodge.
Drop Bags – As mentioned above it was two bags for unsupported but in interests of keeping it sensible for the volunteers who need to lug out your bags at the aid stations it’s dropped to one. Depending on the weather your bag may well get wet so pick appropriate bag and worth having contents in bin liners and zip lock bags inside to guarantee they stay dry. Maybe a spare bin liner for sweaty, wet stinky gear. Try and pack the bag sensibly enough that you don’t need to dig through when knackered.
- For the end of the race (put at bottom of bag)- a full change of warm clothes, comfy shoes and maybe a mains charger for phone etc. If a contact lens wearer you may want your glasses for the journey home.
- For the race kit (keep accessible in bag)- spare shoes, socks, lots of tops/shorts and jackets, gloves and hats (it can get very cold at night on the canal), Vaseline, k-tape, headtorch(es), spare batteries, battery packs for phone and GPS watch with appropriate leads, any food items (pot noodles, sweets etc), spare paracetamol, salt tablets, gels/caffeine tablets, blister kit, plasters, sun cream, that bin bag for wet gear, iPod etc. I tended to have lots of clear bags for each group of stuff, so tops in one, cold weather gear in another etc to make it easier.
- To carry for the race – water/fluids, food (the aid stations are far more spread than a typical ‘easy’ ultra), emergency poo kit, small Vaseline, rain coat, maps or directions, GPS watch, phone, tracker (if you have one), emergency blanket (MANDATORY), buff/hat for sun, emergency cash or card (there are cafes, pubs and ice cream vans on route), sunglasses. Cup for drinks. Some go with the rubber speedcups, personally I’d recommend a sturdy plastic camping/travel mug. If time is getting tight you can get it filled with soup/pasta and eat on the move. Would also recommend a long sleeved base layer in a zip lock bag as well as an emergency item.
Medals/Tops – Unlike most 100+ mile events the memento is not a belt buckle but a massive medal. No free finishers tee (come on the race is cheap as chips!) so you’re invited to order a tee, hoody or buff a few months before the start. Often you get the chance to order after the race as well if you feel ordering in advance would curse the race for you. If you have a crew then getting them a warm hoody to spend the night stood in the rain in is a nice touch.
Route Maps – These are pretty good and posted to you on proper waterproof paper. I’d spend a bit of time on Google Maps to check the trickier sections (tunnels and the canal spurs) so it’s fresh in your head.
I’d also recommend the excellent pacing spreadsheet on the Facebook Group produced by Paul Ali “2013 GUCR Race Plan.xls” to help plan your pacing. It also has a simple route list that is easy to follow but I’ve made a few additions to below based on my experiences in 2018, and updated for the 2021 edition as pacing a mate for some of it. Personally this laminated or in a small pouch should be all you need, with maps stuck in a your backpack as a backup. If you add a column with estimated timings as well it will help keep you on target / arrange meet ups:
|500 yds||Farmers Bridge Junction||Go Right (East)|
|Pass 13 locks and continue for 1100 yds, LHS|
|1.53m||Aston Junction||Turn right over bridge and head South East|
|Pass 6 locks|
/ By railway
|Turn left on towpath, do not go over bridge, LHS|
|2.9m||Bordsley Junction||Keep straight ahead over footbridge towards locks, LHS|
|Pass 6 locks, LHS|
|10.7m||Catherine de Barnes||CP1, LHS (7:10-8:40am)|
|14m||Pass 5 locks – Knowle, LHS|
|15.6m||Cross to R.H.S. at Bridge 67|
|17.5m||Kingswood Junction||Go straight ahead over bridge|
|20.4m||Shrewley Tunnel||Pedestrian path through tunnel, across village road and follow path opposite for 350 yds to rejoin towpath (may appear to be two paths, take the right hand side).|
|22.4m||Hatton Locks (CAFÉ OPEN)||CP2 (8:55-11:30am), Cross to LHS at Bridge 54, 5 locks down.|
|Various small groups of locks, LHS|
|35m||Stockton – 10 locks|
|36m||Birdingbury Bridge||CP3 HOT FOOD (11-3pm) NO CREW|
|38.5m||Napton Junction||Turn left on towpath, do not go over bridge|
|43.6m||Braunston Turn||Best to cross to RHS on double iron Bridges 93/94 for cool photo of sign! Should have now turned right and be heading East with Canal on left.|
|Pass 6 locks|
|45.25m||Take steps on right of Tunnel mouth and continue along farm track over tunnel (0.7m) carefully crossing one road and turn right to follow road to roundabout.|
|At roundabout left through squeeze stile, follow park path, after small bridge turn hard left dirt path. Follow to road, turn left, cross road and look for steps down to canal immediately before bridge 6, now on RHS|
|48m||Norton Junction||Do NOT cross bridge, keep right, cross lock 7 gates by New Inn pub to LHS, under road bridge|
|53.1m||Heart of England||CP4 (2:10pm-7:30pm) NO CREW|
|60.5m||Gayton Marina||Cross BR47 to RHS, cross BR48 to LHS, turn right, canal now on right.|
|62.5m||Blisworth Tunnel||Up ramp, turn left at top through car park to road, turn right, along road for 1.25miles. Then footpath to left as road bears right, rejoin canal on LHS|
|65m||Museum, Stoke Bruene||Pass museum, then cross top lock or BR53 to RHS.Pass locks.BUDDY RUNNERS FROM HERE|
|65.5m||After locks||Cross BR55 to LHS|
|70.5m||Navigation Bridge||CP5 (5:30pm-1am) HOT FOOD on Navigation Bridge (No 64) Cross to R.H.S. (CREW REMAIN ON PUB SIDE)|
|71.2m||Cross Bridge 65 to L.H.S.|
|84.5m||Bridge 99||CP6 (7:30pm-7am) HOT FOOD Bridge 99 NO CREW|
|86.2m||Cross Bridge 106 to R.H.S.|
|87m||Soulbury 3 Locks||Cross Bridge 107 to LHS|
|92.5m||Cross Bridge 116 to R.H.S. (beware 115A and 115B are easily mistaken)|
|98.5m||Marsworth Junction||Updated directions – Cross BR131 to LHS, then BR132 to RHS, pass Bluebells Cafe to right|
|99m||Tring Reservoir||CP7 HOT FOOD (9.55pm SAT -12:40am SUN)|
|100.5m||Bridge 134 (Tring Cutting) Cross to L.H.S.|
|103.1m||Cross Bridge 138 to R.H.S.|
|105.2m||Cross Bridge 141 to L.H.S.|
|105.7m||Cross Bridge 143 to R.H.S.|
|109.8m||Cross Bridge 153 to L.H.S.|
|110.4m||Cross Bridge 154 to R.H.S.|
|110.8m||Cross Bridge 155 to L.H.S.|
|112m||Cross Bridge 158 to R.H.S.|
|114.7m||Cross Bridge 163 to L.H.S.|
|115.2m||Cross Bridge 166 to R.H.S.|
|120.3m||Springwell Lock||CP8 HOT FOOD – LAST BAGGAGE (3am-7pm)|
|124.4m||Cross Bridge 183 to L.H.S. (NOT 182)|
|125.6m||Cross Bridge 184 to R.H.S.|
|127.5m||Cross Bridge 188 to L.H.S.|
|132.2m||Bulls Bridge Junction||Straight across Bulls Bridge 24, turn left/north on the Paddington Arm – now on R.H.S. to end|
|133.2m||Hamborough Tavern||CP9, No Bags, (6am-midnight)|
|145.4m||Little Venice||Finish (Closes 3am Monday)|
Navigation – Main point to note is most of this is done off bridge numbers, some are missing or obscured so double check. Also newer bridges are often added since the original numbering and then have a suffix letter, therefore if you’ve just passed bridge 78 don’t assume the next is 79, if it looks fairly new and shiny it may well be 78A so not the one you’re after.
Pacing (Buddies) – You’re not allowed pacers but can have buddies who stay behind or beside. You’re allowed a buddy runner from Stoke Bruene and I would recommend them if you can sort some. The race gets very spread out at night and especially for women I would say either grouping up with another runner or having a buddy is a good safety tip. Also stops you walking in the canal when tired! If nothing else it can be someone to moan at so the volunteers at the aid stations don’t have to listen to you whine.
Weather – It’s the UK and you’re likely to be out there for 40ish hours so don’t assume consistent weather. In particular don’t underestimate how cold it can get at night. Most will be running very slow over night and generating little heat. I ran in 2018 during a heatwave, think about 28degC in the day but at night still needed three layers to keep warm and had a spare longsleeve base layer in a ziplock bag in my race vest as a backup. Better to carry gloves and a warm hat for the night section and not need them than freeze to death.
Technology – As much as I like to keep running simple I get very OCD about having my Garmin on. Very few models even in Ultratrac mode will last the full race so remember to pack a battery pack and lead in drop bag. Most Garmin will track whilst charging, a few won’t. Have a google of your model to check. I used a Garmin Fenix 5 in normal mode and needed to charge twice for the 38hrs it took me. This model has a stupid charger so you need to do it up around a waist band/rucksack strap and charge that way rather than on your wrist. Likewise your phone is unlikely to last the full race so think about a battery pack charger for that as well. The race is long and pretty spread out so a cheap MP3 player that takes batteries would be good to keep you going.
Distance – The race is described as 145 miles. Apparently this is taken down the middle of the canal so unless you’re in a canoe you will get a longer reading. I got 153.5 miles with only one very minor detour. It’s an ultra so not a big deal but keep the extra distance in mind as the aid station marked as 53.1 miles could well be closer to 55 on your Garmin.
The Finish – There is something oddly magical about the low key finish, by some public toilets on the canal. Unfortunately the low key nature makes it hard to see from a distance so expect the last few miles to be spent thinking “Is that the railings up ahead? No. What about now? No. Where is it, have I missed it?” until you eventually hit it. The final stretch from Checkpoint 9 is easy. You’re on the right hand side of the canal and just stay there for a half marathon until you cross the line. This sounds obvious but after 30/40hrs on your feet you may well start to wonder if you’ve missed it and it’s on the other side. It’s also far more populated than the rest of the route so there may be dog walkers, kids on bikes wandering about, unaware they’re crossing the path of someone who hasn’t slept for two days so can barely remember their own name.
Final Word – If you’re thinking about entering do it!