Race: Grand Union Canal Race
Distance: 145.4 miles
Date: June 2, 2012
Location: Birmingham to London, United Kingdom
Back off! You're too close. Stop!! You are too near.
The last seven miles took me three hours:
Falling into the canal my big fear
And no, I did not stop to smell flowers.
Rewind to the early miles - they were wet
But none more than the ones Saturday night;
The slow ones causing me to fume and fret
As the cutoff times became a bit tight.
Fade out. In focus once again. Fade out.
The sleep that once never showed now did come.
And now it was a fight, an epic bout
To stay awake, move and to overcome.
Oh England! How I love your moody self!
In exploring you a man finds himself.
GUCR Part I (2010) can be read here
GUCR Part II (2011) is here for your enjoyment
The 2009 Thames Ring 250M race I mention in the post below can be accessed here
The last 7 miles were the hardest I have ever done to end a race. They felt interminably long and I was so happy when familiar landmarks showed up, near the end, that gave me an idea of where I was with respect to the Finish. Even then the last mile took forever.
Let me go back to the beginning.
(Photos courtesy of Christian Hottas, Hayley Donnelly, Phil Gadd and Ross Langston)
Wednesday, May 30I landed in London around 10:30 a.m. and got done with Immigration and Customs pretty quickly. Before long I was on the Piccadilly line and got off in King's Cross/St. Pancras. I took out my iPhone and loaded up Maps to orient myself and find the hotel. After checking in I went back to the station to take the tube to Piccadilly Circus and make my way to Panton Street where I was meeting Shefaly for lunch in Woodlands. We talked about her teaching stint in India and my upcoming race.
A quick stop in Tesco to pick up some water and snacks and back to the hotel it was. The room was actually a 2-room suite and I wound up sleeping in the outer room since the inner room felt very stuffy.
Thursday, May 31I went downstairs for a quick breakfast before heading up to the room to pick up the bags and head to Euston Station. My hotel was about half a mile away and the walk was pleasant. I joined the long line to buy a ticket, 19 pounds, to Birmingham. I quickly made my way down to the platform and found myself seated at the end of the train. The train took off on time and deposited me in Birmingham New Street station around 2 p.m. I took a cab to the Jurys Inn on Broad Street. I checked in, left my luggage with the concierge and made my way to Pushkar, an Indian restaurant I have been to before, which was next door to the hotel.
Some satisfying food later I made a quick trip to Tesco again for water and some last minute food for before and during the race.
It was on the way back from Tesco that I noticed a theater near the hotel. I went in and realized that Avengers, in 3-D, was on at 5 p.m. Great! I like Robert Downey, Jr. and the movie was quite entertaining.
Friday, June 1I woke up around 8 a.m. and made my way downstairs for breakfast. After showering I decided to go for a walk along the canal and then back to Tesco to pick up some more things, including chocolate croissants and some chocolate milk for the morning of the race, and then on to a lunch, once again, in Pushkar.
I finally made it to the Travelodge lobby to pick up my bib number and race apparel. Right after that Jeremy Smallwood, Marit Bjerknes and Knut Kronstad and I went for a walk along the race route, for a mile or so, before turning back to head to O'Neill's. I ordered some fries while the others ordered food. Christian Hottas and Christine Schroeder soon showed up as did another runner named Mark Howlett.
the evening before the race)
I left the pub around 8 p.m. in order to go back to the hotel room for some last minute repacking etc.
I was in bed by 10:00 p.m. and fell asleep by 10:15 p.m.
Some sound or the other must have jolted me out of my sleep at 11:37 p.m. Getting back to sleep was hard after that.
Saturday, June 2
I lolled around in bed the rest of the night until I finally decided to roll out of it at 4:00 a.m. After partaking of a couple of small croissants and some chocolate milk and some more last minute repacking I was out the hotel door around 5:10 a.m. on my way to the Start area on Gas Street.
After handing Keith Godden a package I had carried for him from the US and taking from him, for my drop bag, some additional bottles of chocolate milk that he had been kind enough to buy for me I was ready for the race.
Peter Johnson and Lindley Chambers)
It was drizzling by now so I made the wise decision to put on my thin poncho. This proved to be a boon pretty much all through the first day and night. It not only kept me reasonably dry but also added another layer that kept the warmth in and the cold out.
I hugged Emily Gelder and talked with a some familiar faces before Dick started talking about the race. Very soon he began the countdown and we were off!
START to CP1, Catherine de Barnes Bridge #78, 10.7 miles
The first few miles I ran with Per Hjorth and Kent Moeller. They picked it up a bit after that and I was left to my own devices. My plan was to make it to CP1 in under 2 hours. I had reached there in around 2:13 two years ago, under similar rainy conditions, and in 2:05 last year when it was dry and pleasant. This year I reached it in 1:56. I was pleasantly surprised. I had my chocolate milk, replenished my gels and was out of there in under 2 minutes.
By now it was raining quite hard but I was game as were the other runners. I was peeing every 40-55 minutes and that was good. I had planned to take a gel every 40 minutes or so and I had been following that regimen since the start.
CP1 to CP2, Hatton Hill Bridge #54 22.4 milesThe GUCR is very flat and so it's very tempting to run a lot in the race. Not wanting to make the mistake of running continuously unless I had to, I had settled on 25 minutes of running followed by 5 minutes of walking. It felt comfortable and the miles and the hours slipped away unnoticed under my feet.
To the canal-uninitiated it may seem to represent rather boring vistas, i.e. houseboats and water, but to those who have traversed appreciable distances over it on foot it becomes quickly apparent that its faces are ever changing.
The houseboats have their own individual characteristics as do the pubs and homes lining the canal. I always look forward to passing the Blue Lias inn on the opposite bank and the Two Boats inn on the same side.
CP2 to CP3, Birdingbury Bridge 35.9 milesI was still ambling along in the 25 run+5 walk routine that seemed to be working quite well for me. The rain showed no signs of abating. It was time to buckle down and make it to the next CP in time. I seem to remember certain sections of this part course, strangely enough, quite well year after year. There is one small bit where the canal curves sharply to the left, passing a block of apartment buildings, and there is always a lot of people activity here. This year was no exception. A runner was even standing here talking to someone on the phone.
Right after this, around the 31-mile mark is an area where crew members hook up with their runners to offer them support. There were 3-4 support cars there when I passed it. I knew I was getting close to the CP and I was looking forward to the hot soup I know they usually have there as well as my usual chocolate milk.
I reached the CP at 1:38 p.m., i.e. 7:38 into the race. To my surprise, the small second bag I had put my chocolate milks in was not available. That's when I learned that the 2 bags had tags of different colors. One bag would be available for me at all CPs while the other one would be sent on to the Finish area. Fair enough.
CP3 to CP4, The Heart of England, Weedon, 53 milesThis section includes the Braunston tunnel going over the top of which, during the 2009 Thames Ring 250M race, I had spent 45 minutes looking for the path to the other end.
Having run the GUCR in 2010 and 2011 I was now familiar with the way over to the other side. I reached the north end of the tunnel soon enough, after passing Napton Junction, and climbed to the top of the hill with the brothers Marino and Mark Fresch. I was soon on the short stretch that led to the 48 mile point. I know I was behind last year's time because I remember being in this section around 4 p.m. while it was after 5 p.m. this time around.
I reached CP4 at 6:24 p.m. (12:24 into the race). My small black bag was waiting for me and I quickly downed a milk and transferred stuff I would need for the rest of the way into the larger bag. The small bag could now go on to the Finish area.
CP4 to CP5, Navigation Bridge, 70.4 miles
The next milestone to focus on way Gayton Junction at 60 miles. After that was the Blisworth Tunnel with its 2 miles of detour to get to the other side. It was still raining and I put my head down, figuratively speaking, and got down to the business of making it to the other side of Blisworth before it started getting dark around 9:30 p.m.
Gayton Junction came and went and soon I was on the road climbing out of the canal. At the top of this climb I decided to stop, take off my poncho, open up my backpack and put on my headlamp. All of this took 10 minutes or so. I then started the slight descent to where the trail down to the canal starts. I heard a voice calling out my name. It was Keith Godden! He had made great time from the previous CP. He and I ran down the hill together to the canal.
He soon veered off to go to the restroom while I continued on. I soon passed Cathy, Keith's wife, and informed her that he would be there soon.
The rain got even harder. This section had slowed me down a lot last year. This year's torrential rain somehow made it feel better than before and I manfully stuck to my run+walk strategy. The bright lights of the Navigation Inn came into view off in the distance to my left. They looked so tantalizingly close but I knew that they were a good 2 or so miles off along the towpath. Very soon the path curved off to the left and I rolled into CP5 at 10:54 p.m. (16:54 into the race). I spent 30 minutes eating and changing into a long-sleeved shirt and donned tights over my shorts.
CP5 to CP6, Water Eaton, 84.5 miles
I left the CP and continued the run+walk strategy for another 2-3 miles. It was still pouring hard and I am not sure what happened but I started walking and did not run again for a very, very long time. Sleep came in strong waves and it was all I could do to keep it at bay.
In all of this I rounded a corner on the path and came across a young man sitting in the dark looking at something on his phone. I promptly sat down under the bridge and asked him if he would wake me up in 10 minutes. He agreed but kept on talking! In all of that conversation, not totally understanding his strong accent, I must have said Yes to something. The next thing I knew he was asking me to turn on my headlamp and he promptly rolled a couple of joints and offered me one. I told him that I had never smoked one to which he replied "Why did you say Yes then?". Ha ha ha ha. He also snorted a line of cocaine and by then it was time for me to leave. He offered to accompany me but I dissuaded him by telling him that he would not be able to keep up.
Now it was back onto the towpath, under the rain, weaving and trying to stay awake. It was a hard battle keeping sleep at bay. I finally reached CP #6 at 4:17 a.m.
I sat down to take in some coffee along with my chocolate milk and a handful of Jaffa cakes. I was out of there in 20 minutes.
CP6 to CP7, Grand Junction Arms, 99.8 miles
This section was interminably long. I sat down a couple of times to try and sleep and it was on one of these occasions that Christine Schroeder passed me. I kept her in sight and passed her once before she started running and walking faster and eventually disappeared from sight. It was early morning when we went through Leighton Buzzard and, surprisingly enough, this section was familiar not just from the past 2 years but also from the 2009 TR250.
This section, 15 miles long, took me all of 5 hours. I was very, very sleepy and plodding on trying to keep it at bay.
Keith and I found ourselves together once again until he took off and made it to the CP a wee bit before I did at 9:45 a.m. (27:45 into the race). I promptly shucked my backpack and went off to use the toilet.
I spent a total of about 30 minutes here eating soup, some more jaffa cakes and crisps before heading out again around 10:15 a.m.
CP7 to CP8, Springwell Lock, 120.3 miles
This was the single longest section in the race, all of 20.5 miles. You can assess how excruciating these miles were from the fact that the 20.5 miles took me 6 hours and 45 minutes! Bridges went by as did locks. I wobbled on. I was also getting hungry. It was around 111 miles that I espied an Indian restaurant right next to the canal. In and out in 10 minutes with a small container of daal and rice.
I quickly wolfed down the food and this helped. I reached 115 miles around 33.5 hours into the race. It started raining around 117 miles into the race and it pretty much did not stop until I finished it.
I reached CP #8 at 5:08 p.m., 35:08 hours into the race. Since this was the last CP where my bag would be available I put a couple of milk containers in my backpack along with a flashlight and a headlamp. I also made sure I ate enough before leaving with Stefan Olsson and Dave Baker.
CP8 to CP9, Hambrough Tavern, Southall, 133 miles
In spite of sitting down to try and sleep for 10 minute a few miles after the CP, during which time Keith Godden passed me for the last time (he finished in an awesome 41:13!), I still made it to 127.5 miles in 37:52 i.e. the 7 odd miles had taken me just over 2 hours which was not bad going considering how slow I had been until that point.
I had the presence of mind, around 129 miles, to call my hotel and instruct them to have a vegetarian pasta dish prepared for me before full room service closed down at 11 p.m. I kept moving at what I thought was a decent clip but the Bulls Bridge junction took a long time in coming.
It was finally over Bulls Bridge and onto the Paddington arm of the canal. The next mile or so to the CP was through a lot of puddles and mud. I knew that the CP was not far once the canal curved to the left.
I reached at 9:44 p.m., 39:44 hours into the race. I left at 10:10 p.m. after drinking some coffee and eating some food. My friend, Fiona McNelis, was helping out there and she was very, very sweet!
CP9 to the Finish in Little Venice, 145.4 miles
A half mile out of the CP I realized that the headlamp was very low on batteries. Having decided to turn off my flashlight, I had put it in my jacket pocket. After turning off the weak headlamp I took out the flashlight. To my surprise that too would not switch on. Now what? Make the best of it, I said to myself. Let's move in the dark. I was confident that my eyes would eventually adjust and that proved to be the case.
Suddenly I was walking very fast. I know this because some sixth sense made me look up, at 11:10 p.m., just in time to espy the sign I had been waiting for - the sign that said "London Paddington 7.75 miles". I knew that it was 12.4 miles from CP9 to the Finish so I had covered 4.65 miles in 60 minutes i.e. 12.6 minutes a mile!
Knowing that the Finish was close suddenly took the fight and pep out of my mind and body. The sleep, which had been held at bay for many hours, now came back with redoubled vengeance.
I was weaving all over the towpath. My eyes would close for 2 steps, 4 steps and even 20 steps once. This was scary! What if I, instead of merely getting close to the canal, finally went over? I did not think I would die from such an immersion but I was in no mood to try that experiment!
I saw a couple of headlamps coming towards me from under a bridge. It was a father and son duo supporting another runner. They asked me how I was. I replied that I was very, very sleepy. On hearing this the boy offered to get me coffee. He ran off to the right. In the meantime the father helped take out a space blanket I had in my backpack. The boy arrived with a thermos of warm coffee that I eagerly gulped down. They both then helped wrap and tuck the space blanket around me.
I had been cold and wet before this but I was now warm. I thanked them profusely and headed out into the rain to cover the last 5 miles. The sleep came back again once the coffee wore off in 20 minutes or so. Back to weaving it was in the driving rain and wind.
It must have been with 2.5 miles or so to go that the space blanket came undone. Now it was a struggle for me to tuck it in the right places to stay warm. I finally gave up and resorted to holding it closed in front of me with both my arms. This meant that I could not walk with arms swinging by my side. That made it even slower now.
I finally saw familiar landmarks that told me that I was within 1.5 miles from the Finish. Those last hundreds of meters took what seemed like an eternity to cover. I finally glimpsed the Finish banner a few hundred yards down the path. It was with sheer relief that I crossed the Finish line in 44:10 (2:10 a.m.).
This was the most epic ending of any race I have ever run and I thank Dick Kearn, the Race Director, for giving me a chance for the third year in a row to not only play and party on the towpath but to also go on a journey that took me into the deepest recesses of my being. At times I had to summon enormous reserves of determination, when confronted by the weather, the cold and sleeplessness, to not give up.
Immense gratitude to all the amazing volunteers who made this race possible by manning the checkpoints and helping runners take that extra step. Thanks to Paddy Robbins, the winner for the past 2 years, who chose to volunteer instead. You rock!
I love running in the UK!