Thursday, May 30, 2013

Re-deja vu all over again?

Race: Grand Union Canal Race
Distance:  145.4 miles
Date: May 25, 2013
Location: Birmingham to London, United Kingdom
Time: 44:40

Beneath the Sun, the sweaty face,
The shuffling feet, the slowing pace,
The distant goal, the tired gaze.
Ah! This hot summer! Its thick haze!!
Why did I have to pick this race?

Kneeling down, doing up a lace,
Insects invading my airspace.
Tired feet on fire, ablaze,
Beneath the Sun.

And then my Spirit deigns to grace
My side. It takes its rightful place.
The new Me I start to amaze
As mile upon mile I erase.
And then the old Self I outrace
Beneath the Sun.

The above poem, borrowed from Rajeev The Runner, more or less describes what I went through. Not the thoughts about "Why did I have to pick this race?" but the latter part of the poem. I have run too many races, and stopped in a lot of them when I am no longer enjoying the journey, to now do something just because I have to prove something. 

2012 GUCR race report
2011 GUCR race report
2010 GUCR race report

Let's go back to the beginning.

The days leading up to the race were pretty much similar to the ones from years past. I landed in London on Wednesday (May 22) afternoon. After eating dinner in Woodlands on Panton Street I wandered into the Whole Foods that's just off Piccadilly Circus. One of the things I picked up were 6 small sesame snaps. They proved to be an awesome snack during the race!

(Image from

Spent the night there before taking the 1:00 p.m. train to Brum. I checked into Jurys Inn and headed to Pushkar for a quick meal at 5:30 p.m. 

I then decided to head to the theater not too far from the hotel where I was delighted to see the new Star Trek movie on offer. I quite enjoyed it, especially the acting of Benedict Cumberbatch whom I recognized from the new BBC Sherlock Holmes series.

Jet lag ensured that sleep was hard to come by Thursday night. I finally went to sleep at 6:30 a.m. only to wake up at 9:30, in time for breakfast downstairs. Right after breakfast I went off to the local large Tesco store to pick up last minute snacks etc.

Lunch was again in Pushkar - dal and rice this time since I wanted the food to clear my system by next morning.

I went back up to the room and watched TV until I realized that Mimi Anderson, who was attempting a double GUCR, was due at the Start by around 4 p.m. I rushed down to the Gas Street bridge to find Tim, Mimi's husband, and James Adams and Gemma waiting for her too. We realized that we had a bit of time so we trooped into a nearby pub/cafe for coffee and tea.

Mimi duly showed up at 4:09 p.m. She had started at 9:00 a.m. on Thursday giving her a northbound time of 31:09! Simply marvelous!!

(Mimi after her 31:09 finish)

My next stop was the Travelodge lobby where I bought a couple of belts to secure my bib number on and picked up my race T-shirt and sweatshirt. I spent an hour after that in O'Neills with some of the other runners. 

Off to my room it was around 7:30 p.m. I laid out my stuff for the morning and got into bed around 9 p.m. I watched TV for a while and turned off the lights to try and sleep. Like the past 2 years, sleep was hard to come by. I tossed and turned all night. I finally got up around 3:15 a.m. to shave, shower and eat my breakfast. 5:20 a.m. saw me headed for Gas Street and the Start where the yearly picture (below) near the Start was taken.

(L to R: Peter Johnson, I, Paul Ali, Keith Godden and Lindley Chambers)

We were off right after Dick's short speech.

START to CP1, Catherine de Barnes Bridge #78, 10.7 miles

(In the first few miles after the Start)

I was one of the last people to start. Very soon I was truly the last person for I had to stop 5 minutes into the race to answer Nature's call. I did however soon settle into a decent pace and caught up with Geir Frykholm who had stopped to make some adjustments to his backpack. We ran together for the next half a mile or so before he took off. I soon stopped to help a runner who had hit his head on a rather low tunnel overhead. He was bleeding a bit.

A few miles into it I knew we would come to a slight right curve in the canal from where I would be able to get a good shot of this nice church (below).

My left Hoka Bondi was poking into the top of my foot. This was starting to bug me a bit and I knew that if I did not take care of it soon it would become a bigger problem later. So I spent 5 minutes taking off my shoes and sticking Band-Aids to the top of my foot. I started running again, The Band-Aids worked for a few miles but the constant poking returned. I knew that I would have to get out of the Hokas in the first CP.

I duly reached it at 8:07 a.m. Given the 7-8 minutes I had spent with helping the runner and my Hokas, my time into the CP was more like 2:00 hrs. I had done this section in 1:56 last year and 2:00 and 2:06 in 2011 and 2010 respectively. I was pretty much running a similar pace this year too. I got into my Brooks Cascadias, grabbed a few more gels and was out of the CP like a flash. Not without joking with Paddy Robbins though!

CP1 to CP2, Hatton Hill Bridge #54 22.4 miles
I had covered this section last year in 2:20 i.e. I had reached the CP at around 10:15 a.m. I was hoping for something similar for this year too.

Very soon I reached Knowle Lock, at about mile 14, where I used my British Waterways key to open up a water tap (locked in a small box) and topped up both my bottles. The weather forecast had called for a sunny weekend, with highs between 65-68 degrees F, so having enough water was imperative.

                          (A fellow runner took this picture of me. Knowle Lock in the background)

I have no idea what happened to me between 14 and 22.4. All I know is that a combination of lack of sleep (I had now been awake since 9:30 a.m. on Friday i.e. 24 hours and counting), lowish blood sugar and, possibly, the warming conditions made for the perfect storm. 

I could not run at any kind of consistent pace and was forced to walk every so often.

(Just before Shrewley Tunnel)

Keith Godden caught up with me just before Shrewley Tunnel, at mile 20.4, and we exited the tunnel on the far side together. He went on through while I went off to the right, on the road, to this little grocery store I espied. Once inside I realized that nothing looked too appetizing so I decided to scarf down a gel and wait until the CP to eat something. 

The CP was finally reached at 10:58 a.m. I was a full 43 minutes slower than last year! I was still not close to the cutoff since the CP closed at 12:15 p.m. i.e. I had reached with 75 minutes to spare. I quickly ate something, grabbed a few more gels and left.

CP2 to CP3, Birdingbury Bridge 35.9 miles
This section was uneventful like every year. There is that section where the canal curves to the left past a block of apartments. I actually took some pictures in this section including some panoramic ones.

Looking at my text description of the route, something I use every year instead of the maps (which I carry in my backpack just in case I might need them), I realized that I was getting close to 34.6 miles (in 8:11). The CP was only 1.3 miles further away. I finally rolled into that CP at 2:28 p.m. i.e. 8h 28m into the race.

In the rainy conditions last year I had reached this CP at 1:38 p.m. This year I was a full 50 minutes slower! I knew I would be paying the price later in the race for I was now 32 minutes from the CP closing time. 

I have been eating gluten-free foods for the past 2 months but I was so hungry here that I grabbed 4-5 cookies and headed out of the CP stuffing them into my mouth.

CP3 to CP4, The Heart of England, Weedon, 53 miles
 Along the way I did take a picture of a marina I always pass.

I was at Napton Junction soon enough. I will never forget this junction. I was now visiting it for the 5th time in the past 4 years. I had first gone through it in the 2009 Thames Ring 250M where it came at 172 miles. In this race it's at 38.5 miles.

I walked a major part of the miles leading to the tunnel which comes up at mile 45. I walked up the initial climb out of the towpath and then, once I was on a smoother section, ran up the hill and then down the other side down to the canal again.

I was soon at the Norton Junction, at 48.3 miles. A few hundred yards before I reached this junction a runner named Spenser Lane caught up with me. We crossed over the lock and got back to the canal using the public underpass. I had just taken a couple of gels before he had caught up and the sugar rushing about in my body made me want to start running. I did precisely that and soon found myself settling into a nice and comfortable 9:30-10 mins/mile pace. I passed a few other runners including Keith Godden and Geir and Dave Baker who were together.

I must have run for the next 3 - 3.5 miles before settling down to a fast walk. I eventually espied the building, on the far side of the canal, I was looking for. The building is a sign that the CP is just another 200 yards further. I reached the CP at 6:58 p.m. i.e. 32 minutes before the close. 

Cathy, Keith's wife, was helping out here and she was sweet enough to give me two bottles of chocolate milk she had specially got for me! She asked about Keith and I told her that he was about 5-7 minutes behind me.

I was very concerned about Christian Hottas and Christine Schroeder. I was hoping they would be able to make the 7:30 cutoff. Spenser, who had caught up with me a half mile before the CP, and I left the CP at the same time.

Onward now to the big Navigation Inn CP at 70.4 miles!

CP4 to CP5, Navigation Bridge, 70.4 mile
The fastest I have ever made it to this CP is in 2011 when I reached there at 10:19 p.m. (~ 16:19 hours into the race). I have never been able to do the first 70.4 miles faster than 16 hours. This year, obviously considering how close I was to the CP cutoffs, was no exception.

The first milestone I had to focus on was Gayton Junction at 60.5 miles, a long 7.5 miles away! This leg has a 3 or 4-mile section I do not like very much. Those miles are probably the most uneven section of the GUC towpath.

I trudged along with my sights firmly fixed on Gayton Junction which duly arrived at 9:24 p.m. (15:24 into the race if you are paying attention). A scant 2 miles later comes the Blisworth Tunnel.

The top of the short 200 feet climb from the canal is where Spenser, who gone past me in the mile leading up to the tunnel, went right instead of left towards the road. I shouted out to point him in the right direction and quickly caught up with him. 

We were thus together on the mile or so up to the top after which is the descent back down to the canal. Spenser talked about an expensive but warm running jacket he had purchased. We were soon on the dirt path that led down to the canal. This is when the urge to go came upon me strongly. I asked him to continue and quickly went off to the right, off the path, a long ways to answer Nature's call.

Down it was to the canal again. From prior years I knew that there was a pub and an Indian restaurant on the lock. It was 10:45 p.m. by now and I was excited to find that the Indian restaurant was still open. I quickly went inside and asked them to pack me dal and rice to go.

I was waiting for the order to be fulfilled when Keith, Christian Hottas and Christine went past. I was very happy to see all three.

12 minutes later I was on my way on the towpath happily ingesting some much needed food. It must have worked wonders for I soon settled into a fast, distance-eating pace that soon saw me go past the others. I soon noticed the lights of the Navigation Inn off to my left. From the last 3 years of running this race I knew that it would take quite a bit more of time on the towpath before the CP arrived.

12:30 a.m. (18:30 race time) is when it did! 30 minutes before closing!! I did not linger long there. I was out in 15 or so minutes. 

CP5 to CP6, Water Eaton, 84.5 miles
Keith Godden soon caught up with me and passed me. This 14-mile section was unbelievably long! It was, as I wrote on my FB status, a slugfest between the course and my sleep deprived brain, I had now been awake for close to 40 hours with no prospect of sleep in the near future. I would walk a bit and then slow down to stop and close my eyes while standing up and, after the attempt proved futile, continue on. The miles went by uneventfully albeit slowly. 

The sky started to show the first signs of light around 4:15 a.m. That lifted my spirits a bit. It was nice and bright and a tad chilly by the time I reached the CP at 6:07 a.m. (24:07 race time).  This was a full hour and 8 minutes before it closed. The section had taken me around 5h 20m. 

There was some awesome soup on offer and I had two cups of it and a half cup of coffee. Spenser and I left almost at the same time. I had learned that Spenser had been battling severe shin pain in his left leg since the 53-mile CP. He was unable to run and walking itself was slow for him. I forget what time it was that we left but it must have been around 6:35-6:40 a.m. The next section was 15.4 miles long.

CP6 to CP7, Grand Junction Arms, 99.8 miles
The first thing that registered on my still partially sleepy brain was the fact that Leighton Buzzard was about 6 miles away. My plan was to see if I could get some coffee and food there. I trudged along ahead of Spenser until I got to the section where the towpath runs through Leighton Buzzard. It was around 9:00 a.m. that I veered off the towpath into the Tesco parking lot. I had to use the facilities!

That Tesco does not open until 9:30 a.m. so I trudged off onto the main road there to a Shell gas station. The lady there allowed me to use the toilet. I must have gotten back onto the towpath around 9:35-9:40 a.m. I quickly got back into a semi-decent pace (18-19 mins/mile). It must have been an hour before I caught up with Spenser. We both knew that we were the last two out on the course.

Head down, I plodded on. I had been enjoying the Sesame snaps I had purchased in Whole Foods and I consumed the 5th one in that section. The Grand Junction Arms arrived at 11:47 a.m. (I had had to push in the last 2-3 miles in order to not miss the cutoff). This was 13 minutes before the close! I enjoyed some soup and fried potatoes  and quickly left in 15 minutes. I was very pleased to see Spenser make it into the CP with a minute to spare!

The next section was the longest in the race, all of 20.5 miles.

CP7 to CP8, Springwell Lock, 120.3 miles
I was feeling sleepy once again so a scant 1.5 miles after the CP I set the alarm on my iPhone for 10 minutes hence and tried to sleep. This is when Spenser passed me. I was unable to sleep so I switched off the alarm and resumed my slow death march.

The miles rolled by slowly. It might have been a combination of two gels taken together that prompted me to decide to run instead of walk. I was not happy that I was scant minutes off the cutoffs for I knew that the final 12 mile section of the race, should I be fortunate enough to reach that far, would take me anywhere from 4 to 4.5 hours owing to my severe sleep deprivation. I simply HAD to build up a larger buffer!

It was like someone had set a pack of dogs on my heels. I started running around the 107-mile mark and did not stop until I had reached 111 miles or so. Those 4 miles, run at 10 minutes/mile pace, instead of the 18-19 mins/mile of the previous many miles, suddenly put me in the black by 30 minutes or so. 

I had felt good while running those miles. That was very encouraging. It was back to slightly fast walking again from 111 to about 118 miles. I came upon Claire Shelley and others at one of the locks. They were looking for Jerry Smallwood. A few locks later there he was in their company. I hugged him and was very disappointed to learn that he had stopped at 112 miles. I was similarly disappointed to find Christian Hottas sitting atop one of the bridges. He had had a pronounced lean when I had passed him a few miles before the 70.4-mile CP and the lean had done him in. He too was forced to drop out. Christine had continued on alone.

The running bug caught me again around 118.5 miles and I truly sped up now! I must have been doing 8-9 mins/miles and I swooped into the CP at 6:30 p.m. Those last 20.5 miles had taken 6.5 hours! I had reached with 30 minutes to spare. I shucked my backpack, strapped on my big waist pack and got into my Tevas. My Cascadias had served me very well for 110 miles! Allan Rumbles walked a bit with me. You are a star, Mr. Rumbles! Thank you!!

CP8 to CP9, Hambrough Tavern, Southall, 133 miles
I was fired up now! I ate the last of the Sesame snaps and walked at a brisk pace until I had reached 127.5 miles (pub here) at 38:55 into the race. Those 7 miles had taken me 2 hours and 10 minutes i.e. about 18 minutes/mile. I decided to run all the way to Bulls Bridge (mile 132.5). I settled into a 14-15 min/mile pace and the miles started to slip by. It was starting to get dark and I turned on my headlamp. I must have reached Bulls Bridge around 40:18 into the race (10:18 p.m.). The last mile into the CP was mostly walked because the towpath was not in great shape, I reached CP#9 at 10:37 p.m. (40:37 race time).

My friend Fiona McNelis was in the CP as well as James Adams. I quickly refilled my bottles and left the CP since there was not much to eat there. 

CP9 to the Finish in Little Venice, 145.4 miles
James was kind enough to accompany me out for a half mile or so. He filled me in on the status of many of the other runners. Hugs to you, James!!

I walked and walked and walked. The first thing I noticed was that the path was pretty much paved after the first 1.5 miles from the CP. Evidently British Waterways had the intention of paving it all. That made it a lot easier to walk, even without a light if needed. I kept plodding on sure that I was closer than 7 miles to the Finish. It was with a slight shock that I noticed the sign "London Paddington 7.75 miles" after what seemed like an eternity. Crap! 7.25 miles to go still!

Sleep was upon me now as I had been expecting. Fortunately though it never got as bad as last year! I kept eating my gels with the intention of not only keeping the blood sugar up to help my my walking but also to let the brain have some much needed sugar to stay awake.

With about 4 miles to go I was passed by Steve Beedle, Glyn Raymen and Jason Firestone. They were setting a great pace and I wished them bon voyage! :-)

Having run this race 3 times before and this section 4 times (I had come to London for work in April 2012) I knew where I was. I was alternately walking and shuffling by now. With about 2 miles to go I experienced sudden twinges in my right upper calf. Not wanting to do more harm and knowing that I WOULD finish in time I backed off and kept walking.

The first headlamp I saw coming my way was Paddy Robbins'. He asked me about Spenser and I informed him that he was not far behind me. The next person was James Adams. He walked with me for over half a mile before heading off to his home just off the canal. I knew that I had just over a mile or a mile and a half to go.

It was a pleasure to see the Finish off in the distance. I finally let Dick put the customary heavy GUCR medal around my neck at 2:40 a.m. (44:40 race time).

What a battle it had been! I ran hard when I needed to and when I could. Was the victory sweet? You bet!

My heartfelt gratitude to Dick and his amazing corps of volunteers that included James Adams, Sharon Weldon, Paddy Robbins, Hank, Paul Stout and Allan Rumbles to name a few.

I found out the next day that Keith Godden had dropped out at 85 miles. I was very bummed to learn that. Spenser Lane finished in 44:54!! Way to go, Spenser!!!

Onward to the Jul 3 Thames Ring 250M now!!


yoganandhini said...

You are such an inspiration Rajeev! Can't even comprehend 250 and 145m, what determination and will! Kudos.

Rajeev said...

Thank you, Yogs!

Rajeev Char said...

Brilliant report as usual! Congrats Patel!