The Grand Union Canal Race (GUCR) is a 145 mile (233km) nonstop race from Gas Street Basin in Birmingham to Little Venice in London it’s the longest annual running event in the UK.
Competitors have to complete the race in 45 hours and must reach Navigation Bridge (halfway) in 19 hours or they are disqualified. Runners are not allowed to stop for more than 40 minutes and their support crew aren’t allowed to run with them until they have reached Navigation Bridge (70.5 miles).
I had three fantastic crew who looked after me, Tim (my long suffering husband) Becky Healey and Steve Moore, they had kindly given up a bank holiday weekend to support me (although both Steve and Tim said that they wanted to be home by Sunday afternoon – no pressure boys!)
My aim for this event was to try and beat the female course record set in 2007. I had told Becky that I wanted to attempt to complete the race in 28 hours, so Becky put together a pacing plan which would bring me to the finish in 28hrs 5 minutes. Meeting places had been decided and I knew what pace I had to keep to between certain distances, even my stops were factored into the time which meant that the longest stop I was allowed was 10 minutes (although I never took more than 5)
I had first taken part in this race in 2004. At that stage I had only been running Ultras for 3 years and it was my qualifier for Badwater – I finished then in 39hrs 39 mins which I was thrilled with – how would I fair 6 years later?
The Inkerman Group once again set up my Tracka on my website which enabled people to follow me as my PINK dot ran to London.
Training had gone really well, although of course I always have the usual panic that I hadn’t done enough training, perhaps I wasn’t going to be fast enough and as for the distance ….. however, I have no doubts that every person taking part would have gone through the same self doubts.
Tim and I drove up on Friday picking Steve up at Beaconsfield then made our way to Birmingham where we found our “lovely” hotel right in the centre of Birmingham but a 2 minute walk from the start of the race.
As I always have a panic before the race the three of us walked down to the start. If the boys had their way I would be starting the race going the wrong way! We then walked the first mile just so I knew where I was going – sounds easy on a Canal but within the first 500m there are a variety of ways you could go, so better to check.
After a sort out back at the hotel, we then got a taxi to the Red Lion Pub where registration was taking place; there we met up with Becky who had driven down with Phil Bullen who was also taking part. After something to eat we headed back to the hotel room so I could go through with the crew what I wanted, where I had put things etc, that all sorted we went to bed. Tim and I set three alarms just in case we slept through one – no need as the night revilers kept us awake!
I was up at 4.45am, coffee, panic, more coffee then dressed. I put two Buff tattoos on my cheeks, Tim informed me later that they were upside down, how embarrassing!
At 5.40am on the 29th May, Tim, Becky, Steve and I headed to Gas Street Basin for the start. I met up with the other Buff Athletes which was great and saw a few other people I knew. With 5 minutes to go I went to the start line, plugged in my music to relax and waited. 6am seemed to arrive rather quickly and Dick Kearn (race organiser) set 91 nervous but excited competitors on our way.
The weather for Saturday wasn’t forecast to be very good, but thankfully the race started with no rain which made a huge difference.
The first 10.7 miles (17.2km) of the race seemed to go by fast; I kept a good steady pace, chatted to a few people but very much kept to my plan. It took me about 20 minutes to feel relaxed and get my chest comfortable. Arriving at the first CP Becky handed me a bottle of my perpetuem and I kept going, the next meeting point was at 18.1 miles (29km). The next 8’sh miles went by quite quickly but I do remember having to duck under lots of umbrellas put up by the fishermen – there seemed to be a particularly endless patch of “fisherman” none of them seemed to show any interest in moving, no choice but to run through telling them that there were a further 90 runners coming behind me! My footpod had stopped working at 7.4 miles so I had no idea whether I was keeping to my pace or not but I had no option but to keep going – this was after all a race! The first 18.1 miles (29km) was the fastest section of the race, but it felt comfortable – this is what I had trained for.
The next 46 miles (74km) seemed to go past quite quickly, although I did worry that I wasn’t keeping up with my schedule, Becky informed me at Butt Br.34 (mile 30 – 48.2km) that I was only 3 minutes behind, then at Flecknow Road Bridge No. 102 (mile 41.4 – 66.6km) I was still only 3 minutes behind schedule.
It was around Grayton Junction (mile 60.6 – 97.5km) that Jon Kinder came up behind me. I knew that this would happen at some point as he is a very fast runner. Great to have his company for a bit, we ran over the Blisworth Tunnel together then once back onto the towpath again I waved him goodbye, I did however manage to stay approx 30 minutes behind him for the remainder of the race.
By the time I reached mile 65 (104.6km) I was still in good spirits, legs were still feeling strong and I was only 21 minutes behind. I remember my crew handing me my bottle and as I left was very excited as I only had 5.5 miles until I reached the half way point!
The weather up until this point had been simply awful, it rained cats and dogs, my crew changed me a few times to keep me warm – I would stand there, lift up my arms and they would strip me, put another top on and send me on my way – all very quick, rather like a formula 1 pit stop (as Becky said!).
Coming up to Navigation Bridge (70.5 miles – 113.4km ) the heavens opened once more and it just tipped down, but if you’re racing you have no choice but to keep going, I quite enjoyed it and I do remember having a smile on my face at one stage, laughing and enjoying running in the rain!
The crew were at Navigation Bridge waiting for my arrival – quick change, something to eat, waterproof jacket and was sent promptly on my way (bossy lot!) I was now 16 minutes behind but I knew that I could keep a faster pace going for the last section than was on my schedule. I was still feeling great, motivated and enjoying the scenery and wildlife – I have never seen so many Herons! It was here that we heard that Pat Robbins (the course record holder) was only 45 minutes behind me.
I had asked my crew to meet me approximately every 5 miles from now on, nothing was going to change, no stopping but it was a boost for me to see them. Between Navigation Bridge and Peartree Bridge there was the most beautiful rainbow – I took this to be a good omen.
Becky, Steve & Tim met me at Proud Berch (Black Horse Pub) mile 75.8 (121.9km) just after yet another downpour – Becky looking very fetching in my pink bath hat with a large flower attached – it made me laugh and I think the local fisherman thought she was on a day release from the loony bin!!! I was soaked through and asked them if I could have a change of clothes at the next meeting point, although I was cold I knew I had to keep going – to give me a bit of a boost they gave me a surprise visit at Soulbury Three Locks (mile 87 – 140km) where they found me a very fetching changing room – no mucking around, all done very quickly much to the amusement of the locals, I was then sent on my way with lots of good luck from people going to the pub and I felt so much better.
My legs were beginning to ache a bit, but not enough to worry about, you know that with these sorts of distances aches and pains are part and parcel of running. However, everything else felt great, no blisters and I was still keeping up a good pace and managing to say marvellous so I knew I was OK!
Becky started running with me at Leighton Buzzard (mile 90.5 – 145.6km) as the light was fading. She ran behind me shining her torch so I could see more clearly where I was going. At Marsworth Junction Steve came out to join us as this bit was a bit complicated in the dark and he lead the way – made everything so much easier.
Finally I got to the 100 mile (160km) mark at Grand Junction Arms in 17 hours 20 minutes – still only 18 minutes behind (after my stop) – OH YES! I can’t tell you how marvellous it was to reach 100 miles – only 45 (72.4km) to go, such a good feeling. I was still feeling good and thankfully it was a mild evening with no rain! Becky continued to run with me until Boxmoor Bridge (108 miles) where Steve took over and ran with me until the end.
Steve ran behind me shining the torch as Becky had done – I didn’t really want to talk at that stage but just keep going. I was taking walking breaks every so often, only for about 1 minute and would talk to myself to tell me to stop being so silly and keep my legs running (I do remember getting very cross with myself!)
Although most of the towpath was relatively flat and easy to run on, there were sections where large metal bits stuck up which was quite dangerous. Steve did his best to tell me when they were coming up, but unfortunately I missed one and went head over heels landing flat on my front and in particular landed very heavily on my left chest – boy did it take the wind out of me and I wasn’t able to run for a couple of minutes as I couldn’t breathe, but I insisted on keeping going, I really didn’t want to stop. Thankfully it didn’t take long and I was back to running again, still at a good pace.
If I had a loo break Steve would continue to walk, this was great as it meant I had to run to catch him up, this worked well. Steve thought it was very funny as I kept on asking him if he was OK!
By now I could definitely feel my legs, my thighs felt achy and the bottoms of my feet were just a bit sore from the constant pounding – however, job to be done, keep going, not far to go now.
Between about 4 – 5am I had a bad patch, I felt dizzy and needed to have something to eat. Pat Robbins passed us at some point during this time – although I knew he was going to overtake me (he was on a 24 – 26hr schedule and the course record holder!) I was angry with myself that I had allowed him to overtake me at approx 120 miles (193km). Apparently he said afterwards that it had taken him and his buddy longer to catch up with us as I was running well – that was nice to know!
At Wide Water Lock (mile 123 – 97.9km) I had some malt loaf and some jelly beans, once these kicked in I felt much better, especially as it was now light enough and we could put our torches away. After Watford I began to count down the bridges, I remember some were really close together and others were miles apart – THEN some of the bridges would have 188a, 188b – good grief, this was going to take ages!
I can’t exactly remember the times, but Pete Mulvihill came and joined us which was fantastic, great for Steve as he must have been bored to tears of me at this stage, for me it was a great motivation and very special. I was still running at a good pace but still having my walking breaks – there was no rules for the walk, I would get to the stage when I needed 30 seconds with no pressure on the legs then I was quite happy to run again. There was a lot of chatting and laughing during this stage!
Pete ran with us until the turnoff for Paddington after saying goodbye we headed towards the finish line – I had a spring in my step knowing that I didn’t have far to go and if all went well would beat the female course record.
At Hambrough tavern (133 miles – 214km)) I met up with my crew again and Jo Kilkenny had turned up to run with me to the finish, so with only 12 miles (19.3km) to go LESS THAN HALF A MARATHON we kept running, every step taking me closer to the finish line, chatting as we went.
By the time we reached Piggery Bridge (139 miles – 223.6km) I was 15 minutes behind my schedule. This really spurred me on for the last 6 miles; I knew I was going to do this, now I just needed to complete the race as close to my schedule as I could.
With 1.77 miles (2.84km) to go Neil Kapoor ran out to join us – he got a huge hug (goodness I must have smelt!) it was wonderful to see him and to be told that we had under 2 miles to go really gave me the boost I needed.
Like in all races, the finish line never seems to appear but eventually there it was, I just needed to finish and my pace picked up into a sprint (a sprint for me!) and I crossed the line in 28hrs 12 minutes (7 minutes behind my schedule) I’d done it SMASHED the female course record by over 3 hrs, I can’t even begin to tell you how wonderful that felt. I also finished the race 3rd overall.
A big thank you to my wonderful marvellous crew, Tim, Becky and Steve, they were quite simply outstanding and without them I couldn’t possibly have achieved my goals. To Pete, Jo, Neil, Clare (and baby) a special thank you for making the effort to come and run with me and see me finish. My mother was fantastic and kept my blog up to date and finally thank you to all my sponsors for their amazing support and encouragement.
Finally thanks to Dick for putting on a fantastic event, although it would be great if you could organise the weather slightly better!!!!
Be sure to watch the video here