I struggle along this next section to get going, I'm focussed on getting to Berkhamstead where I know my crew will be waiting but of course it takes forever to come. I get a call from Lisa telling me they are there and set up, finally we find them.
Rachel is there as well to pick Steve up, I manage to completely ignore this and slip as scheduled into the support car, take my shoes off and pull my hat over my eyes for 10minutes much needed kip. I'm not sure if I really sleep, I'm aware of the light and sounds around me but it still provides a refreshing break for tired eyes. I'm awoken by a coffee and a bacon sandwich (something Steve will tell you I'd been fantasising about for the last 10miles!).
My complacency doesn't last long however as Lisa tells me I need to get moving within another 5minutes. I dry my feet & change my shoes and set off with my sandwich, leaving half my coffee. A quick photo stop and I stagger over the bridge and on my way.
I see Alicja a little ahead of me, walking, she beckons to me but I have no intention of running to catch her! Eventually I do and we have a chat, walking together for a little while. She had stomach trouble and couldn't keep anything down, I'm sure the chat was doing her good, but I felt pretty strong and wanted to make progress whilst I could, fortunately she took a toilet break so I excused myself and tried a little running.
The running went surprisingly well and I felt confident that my pace must have been 4mph or better when running. I was setting myself goals I could see to run to, be it the next lock, a bridge or a boat before taking a walking break. Where possible I was counting my paces in 50s and allowing myself only to stop running at the end of a 50 or to force myself to start running after only 50 walking paces. This way if I didn't feel recovered enough to run, or if I felt good to push on I had an immediate goal.
[goes on a bit this doesn’t it!]
Just 3 miles later at Soulbury Three Locks we met up with Steve who was to run with me through the rest of the night. They swapped the head torch for the car keys, Rachel having finished her longest (and possibly slowest!) run to date and off for a well deserved kip.
Steve and I set off up the locks, somehow getting stuck alongside the top one when we should have been crossing the bridge beyond, not wanting to go back we carefully crossed the lock gate which felt precarious at best after 87miles!
We settled into some kind of run/walk rhythm but I couldn't tell you what it was! Passing through Leighton Buzzard and a handful of support crews in Tesco car park, once again I remember the location in the light last year, it's still dark, a sign things are going well. On the way out of town there's a mist over the canal from the rain hitting it, a gentle breeze slides it across the canal where it lifts over the edge onto the towpath and over a canal boat moored up, forming surreal eddies in our torchlight.
Along to the locks at Slapton where we found a Scotsman laying on the floor, he was on the phone and acknowledged us positively so we carried on. For a good 7 or 8 miles off this next section the towpath is grassy with an uneven muddy rut, this may have been runnable in the daylight and with fresh legs but being wet and dark we settled for as fast a walk as we could muster. Still a better pace than I'd have been able to muster on my own.
Light slowly creeps into the sky, and soon the torches are off. At one point I'm sure it even stopped raining for a moment, it soon started again which was when I realised I've been completely unaware of the rain for hours. The towpath improves toward Marsworth, I recognise the turn and the bridges and know that checkpoint 7 at a tantalising 99.8miles is just a few steps away. Inevitably it takes longer to come than I expect, but we're there, a significant psychological milestone and a personal best to get there comfortable under 24hrs.
We both take on some coffee & lovely chocolate cake, Alicja is tucked with her feet up in a corner of the tent being tended to. The fact I've caught her at all implies she's had a bad race so far, and her look backs that up. A quick detour up to the pub to use their toilet and we're on our way.
And so we set off from Navigation Bridge to tackle the stint through Milton Keynes, headtorches at the ready but fortunately not yet needed. Rachel did a good job of keeping my pace up when I was running, and my spirits when I wasn't. As instructed by my crew she regularly tried to get some food down me, from mars bars to power bars I get the impression it was a little like pulling teeth at times.
I remember Milton Keynes last year being an extremely depressing place, in the dark, you're almost always below street level so there's nothing to see except a dozen extra bridges but with Rachel rabbiting on and the reflective tabs on her heels mesmerising me it passed much quicker. I went through a low point approaching Peartree Bridge where I had dropped to a walk, fortunately the crew were awaiting our arrival and had soup at the ready and a warmer hat since the temperature was now dropping quickly.
Re-energised we made good progress through to the next checkpoint at Fenny Stratford (84.5miles), catching and passing a runner and buddy along the way. The checkpoint wouldn't seem to arrive but finally did, we only hung around here long enough for me to manage half my coffee and be tempted by a cheese sandwich.
Once again I find I can't remember much about the next section, apart from my feet getting wetter and wetter. I knew this would mean the death of my feet so on meeting my crew at the start of the road section on top of Blissworth tunnel; a fresh pair of shoes & socks and a good drying and talking of the feet. This was my scheduled dinner stop so I set off walking up the road with a cup of soup and some bread. The warm soup was a hit, warming and delicious. Again I tried to keep the pace down for while to let things settle but again couldn't hold myself back for too long.
With my hands full with bread and soup I had left the maps with my crew, figuring I'd remember the route well enough. This proved not to be the case so I had to phone the crew to check where to cross. I saw them again briefly just after Stoke Bruerne to push myself the remaining 5 miles to Navigation Bridge.
At Navigation Bridge it was still light, I was ecstatic and little to my knowledge a good hour ahead of plan. I was met by my crew where we retired to some shelter in the pub car park, my feet were soaked through again already so I repeated the drying and new socks routine this time with some waterproof socks to avoid any repeats through the night. From this point on you are allowed a buddy runner and I was joined by Rachel & Steve who were due to take me through the night.
I was much later last year but going through the night can be a psychologically as well as physically dark place on your own, so I was glad to have the company, even if we ended up walking much of it.
The next checkpoint is the Heart of England at 53miles, this takes in the grassy section along to Braunston before climbing over the tunnel and along to Norton junction. Along this section I ended up running with a few others and was quite grateful for the company, we variously slowed or stopped and met with crew but were never far apart through to the New Inn at Norton junction.
I met my crew here and got my bumbag & bottle restocked as well as grabbing a smoothie to take along with me. Whilst this was happening I spotted my father-in-law's beer which was somehow irresistible, so I cheekily had a couple of sips, possibly the best thing I'd tasted all day! The day was wearing on now and it had been raining gently for a while, so I also took this opportunity to swap to a long sleeved base layer.
Back out on my own again through to the checkpoint with nothing much to note except one of my work colleagues and his kids coming to visit and check out some canal boats, a friendly face is welcome at any stage of the race even if you can't stop for long to chat.
I really can't remember the checkpoint but left still focussed and knowing the next milestone was checkpoint five at Navigation Bridge. This is the 70mile mark and the first official cut off, marking the start of the night stage through Milton Keynes and beyond. I remember getting there in the dark last year but so far things were looking good to at least get there in the twilight.
The next leg takes me to Birdingbury at 35.9miles, taking in Warwick, Leamington Spa and a number more lock flights. I can't really recall a great deal about this section aside from it was getting rather warm and having to yell at my crew who were still milling about with the car and clearly not expecting me! I felt like I was still going fairly strong and enjoyed the discipline of walking up the inclines at the lock flights and then running between them, the distances between locks varies so it helps ease the monotony a little.
At Birdingbury it is lunch time, I took some squash just to get a bit of a different flavour to the energy drink and water I'd has so far and my crew brought me my corned beef hash. This meal had worked well for me last year, satisfying the usual savoury cravings and being stuffed with carbohydrates. This time however the warmer weather meant I really struggled to get it down, I forced myself but really had to pace myself in doing so.
After meal breaks I had planned only 3miles in the next hour to allow me to walk if necessary and let the food settle. I did this for as long as I could manage but even my walking pace was more than 3mph so I allowed myself some more easy running, might as well make some progress whilst I can.
Such an event really requires a strategy thought out in advance, especially with the logistics involved in meeting crews and refuelling. The problem is of course over this distance it's hard to know what is feasible even if everything goes well.
My A schedule had me finishing in 36hours. When you consider this was similar to last years plan (eventual finishing time 44hrs28) or that depending on the year this would range from 2nd or 3rd position through to mid field you can see how difficult it is to judge things.
The canal winds its way out of Birmingham past the urban redevelopment of swanky bars, clubs & apartments. It takes a little over 12miles to get to the first checkpoint at Catherine-de-Barnes during this time the atmosphere amongst runners has been relaxed and I've chatted to several new and old faces along the way. Having managed to get some drink on and take on a gel and energy bar I top up my supplies and keep moving.
After this the canal passes under the M42 and moves into the countryside on the way to the Hatton checkpoint at 22miles. More friendly banter with the occasional runner and crew, it's amazing how quickly the runners spread out and the varying paces and strategies mean you never stay together too long without a concerted effort. Having missed a couple of planned walk breaks in the first section I was able to be more disciplined on this section, trying to save my legs for as long as possible. Even so I was ahead of plan already.
So it was, again, I found myself rolling out of bed at the crack of dawn and getting a lift into the middle of Birmingham for a 6am start. Broad street's is absent of it's vibrant night at that time of day, only as you turn in to Gas street do you find the busy hum of crews, runners and marshals loading/unloading support vehicles, preparing feet and thereafter generally milling about nervously.
My nerves meant that I hadn't been able to force myself to eat anything before the start, I don't think I even drank much either but knowing the duration of the even I wasn't too concerned. As any observer will tell you the start of most ultra races is rather low key as no one is in a hurry to shuffle off in the lead, this morning was no exception with the main discussion amongst the runners was ensuring someone who knew where they were going went first.
The Grand Union Canal Race is an epic annual event on the UK ultrarunning calendar. At 145 miles it claims the title of longest continuous foot race in the UK and takes competitors on a journey from central Birmingham to central London along the canal towpath within the race's 45 hour time limit.
Having completed the race last year, albeit just inside the cut off, I was never really mentally able to relive the process in order to complete a race report. Coming back for the second time in 2007 we had the benefit of last year's experience in building a plan for the big day.