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Grand Union Canal Ė Birmingham to London  Ė 24/25 May 2013

Andy Horsley reports from this 145 mile epic.

My decision to run this event again was called into question several times in the lead up to the race. I had (successfully) completed the Viking Way just a few weeks before and although I had completed this race before my last attempt in 2010 ended sadly. I had finished at Ivinghoe Bridge (96 miles) - vomiting blood, no skin on the soles of my feet and chaffing which would make a butcher wince with my support crew trying to give me encouraging noises whilst whispering behind me. I felt I needed to have a better go and as I was lucky enough to come out of the hat for a place, why not? The only difference this time is that I had chosen to do the race without my support crew, despite a few tears and protests they all stayed at home.

I travelled up the night before with Pat Robbins who was helping out Dick with the race. Despite some horrific traffic we made it in time for me to register, chat with a few people and down a plate of food in the pub before retiring for a fairly early night.

Saturday morning I was up and awake at 4am and then the tried and tested routine of preparation for the next 48 hours or so (hopefully less). Two bowls of porridge, a pint of coffee and lashings of Sudocream later I was ready to go. We arrived at the start in Gas Street in plenty of time and it was just a matter of chatting to a lot of familiar faces before gathering on the canalside for the off. Dick gave us all a rousing speech before sending us off on time at 6am through Birmingham.

The first couple of miles are more of a procession as most of it is single file and under low bridges and then the canal turns sharp left and as people settle into their pace and the field spreads out. I had had no plan as to how I would run the race but obviously would have an eye on the cut-offs and as the only long run since the Viking Way was the North Dorset Marathon I would be relying on my endurance to see me through.

I was carrying a back pack with a couple of litres of liquid, some snacks and emergency clothing which slowed me down but would hopefully mean I wouldnít have to spend too much time at checkpoints. After leaving Birmingham the canal winds into the countryside and becomes picturesque. I tried to keep a steady pace and to drink regularly, the forecast was warm so it was nice to use some time in the cool morning. Time also passed quickly early on whilst I chatted with other runners, catching up with old friends and new ones. The first checkpoint I arrived at is about 11 miles in and I suppose I was mid way down the field. Pat was there and whilst I knocked back some water he told me to slow down as I was several minutes up on his course record! I knew I couldnít keep that up and I knew that many ahead of me couldnít either.

I jogged on, taking a few walk breaks to save energy. I didnít worry too much about how I was feeling, I was tired already. The next section led up to the checkpoint just before Warwick at 22 miles. It was a pleasant section and included Shrewley tunnel which broke it up and provided a tunnel and a rare uphill. I topped up my back pack and tried to make use of the slight downhills at the locks that followed. From here the canal goes through Warwick and Leamington spa to the next checkpoint at about 36 miles. The weather was quite warm now and I stopped to take on more fluid and snacks. I also had to change my shorts as mine had developed holes in intimate places. A quick change later and I was back out on the towpath. However, whilst I was changing I had forgotten to top up my back pack and the next section was 17/18 miles in the afternoon sun!

I was OK for a while and as there was several distractions on the route such as another hill over Braunston tunnel and the toilet block at Norton I was quite happily moving forward. However towards the end of the section I started to slow as I was low on water and a few people went past me. I arrived at the checkpoint and was ushered to a chair and my drop bag was produced like clockwork (as at every checkpoint). The checkpoint was busy and had obviously had a rush on as there were no drinks out so I had a struggle to top up my bladder and make some electrolyte drink (twice other runners nicked it thinking it had been put there for them). In the end I made some up in cups and walked out of the checkpoint trying to drink it as I was feeling a bit nauseous by now.

Another long section followed to roughly the halfway point at 70 miles where the next aid station was located. This section more than any other reminds me of how long this race actually is. It is very flat and winds through the green countryside and seems to drag on. By now I was feeling very hot and tired and starting to question why I was there. Several other runners were around me at this point and special thanks to Lindleys crew for supplying me with a Coke, very welcome. Another large hill at Blisworth was followed by the endless twists and turns to the checkpoint at Navigation Bridge. This is always a lively place and this was no exception, a great atmosphere and a lot of familiar faces both running in the race and helping at the checkpoint. I got there just before dark and sat down to eat some food. It felt very comfortable there, surrounded by friends, being fed and watered and I can understand why so many people drop out at this point. However, I didnít want to hang around so sorted myself out quickly, put an extra layer on for the night a plodded on down the towpath to shouts and heckles from behind, so motivational!

From here the canal goes through a couple of miles of countryside before entering Milton Keynes via Wolverton. I donít particularly look forward to this bit especially at night as it can be a bit unpleasant in places. I had my head torch on now and kept a look out for fishermen who tend to leave their rods over the path and tramps and drunk people who tend to hang round canals. In truth I didnít see many of either this year, possibly because the temperature dropped quite dramatically to a very cold night. Also the towpath area seems to have been improved around Milton Keynes making it a more appealing place to be.

I arrived at the 85 mile checkpoint at about 2am. My body was feeling pretty good but my stomach was turning circles. I asked for  (and got) a cup of tea but struggled to drink it and was feeling sick again. In hindsight I think it was heatstroke from the hot day and the contrast of the cold night. Whatever the reason I left the comfort of the chair quickly as I needed to empty my stomach and made it only a few yards to the next bridge before doing the necessary. A bit of a dilemma here though, when chundering do you puke into the canal which is already dirty but a bit unfair on the ducks, or use the grass verge where someone may want to sit for a nice picnic the next day, in the end I did both, sorry.

I felt a bit better after that and after explaining to a watcher (why was he there?) that it is an occupational hazard I carried on. Back out into the countryside now and very misty due to the cold air and warm canal meant I couldnít see much at all until the sun started to come up at about 4am again. I kept trying to drink but still felt ill. I was unable to eat anything at all, not good with 60 odd miles to go.

I passed Ivinghoe bridge without incident and with my body in much better condition than last time I navigated my way to the 100 mile checkpoint near Tring. Andy Smith and Pat were there to give me some motivational words and make sure I didnít hang

around. I told them that I needed to eat and if I was sick again I was going home. I took on some soup and it was like a magic potion, two or three cups and 15 minutes later I was on my way again feeling much better. Iíll be souping up in future long races.

I think it was about 6am now and the sun was coming up and it was going to be another hot day. The next checkpoint was 20 miles away and I just concentrated on keeping a steady pace and not to hang around too much. The route was more interesting now with several bridge crossings and a few more people about. You do get a lot of people asking you what you are doing on these events and it can become a bit tiring to keep explaining especially as they normally donít believe you. I found a new trick was to stay 100 yards or so behind another runner and he/she gets asked all the questions and they ignore me. Pete Johnson did a marvellous job for me that day.

As the morning wore on and I passed through the towns coming towards London the weather warmed up a lot and by the time I arrived at the 120 mile checkpoint I was hanging. Paul Stout and Alan Rumbles were here manfully soaking up the rays. I did hear about the dogging site they had discovered when setting up the checkpoint. They did keep me topped up with lemonade and I found my hat which I had lost earlier. Thanks to Rob P for telling me I was stupid, as if I didnít know that!

I went on, only 13 miles now to the next aid station but in the hottest part of the day and I was struggling. I was very hot and thirsty and needed more fluid and cooling down. Every bit of shade felt so welcome but I darenít stop in case I couldnít get going. However, I needed something and I spotted a petrol station about a quarter of a mile away while I was crossing a bridge. I thought about it for a whole 10 seconds before making my way down there. Whatís another half a mile on this event? Two Calippos and a bottle of cold Sprite heavier I made my way back to the towpath and carried on. The ice lollies slid down lovely and the lemonade was doing the trick, another lease of life. I saw Pete again sat on a fence and shared some lemonade with him, we carried on together for a bit, on and off. At least he couldnít get lost on this race, could he?

We passed through the outskirts of west London before a sharp left turns towards central London and the 133 mile checkpoint. This is only a mini checkpoint and was surrounded by swans. James and Fiona were there to give encouraging noises and keep us fuelled, only 12 miles or so to go. Pete went ahead and I plodded on, I kept seeing other runners support crews along the way so I knew there were several people around. If I kept going I could finish this much quicker than last time I finished.

After the bridge with 6 miles to go you can almost count down the miles by the features Ė 6 miles Sainsburys Alperton, 5 miles North Circular, 4 miles Acton Power Station, 2 miles Sainsburys Kensal and then the A40 flyover with 1 mile to go. The closer I got the better I felt and started to speed up. As I approached the end I saw Pete just ahead so I slowed to let him cross the line before me, it would be bad form to overtake just before the line on this event. He kept slowing down so I shouted at him to get a move on,  he was shouting back but I couldnít hear what he was saying (he wanted us to cross the line together apparently). Eventually I finished a few yards behind him having stopped to let him finish but we were given joint 36th place in the results.

Dead chuffed to have finished in daylight (just!) and taken 3 and a half hours off my last GUCR finish time. Thanks to Dick, Pat and everyone else involved in this very special event.

36th place (joint) Ė 39 hours and 15 minutes.



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