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The GUCR 145 2007 – A Tale of Three People and a Van
Ok, so I have a support crew in the form of my nearest and dearest Fiona and long time friend and drinking partner Scott. I also have a hire van loaded with enough water/coke/smoothies/crisps/biscuits/pot-noodles/sweets to supply the entire field, let alone one man and his crew, along with a couple changes of running gear in readiness for the expected rain.
So it’s 6am on Saturday morning and I am standing at the Start in Birmingham with 74 other competitors. Having previously entered and been sidelined by injury, just standing on the Start line was an improvement on last year’s effort. I am feeling fit but there is something nagging at me in the corner of my mind, it’s a number…..one hundred and forty five…..let’s say that again ONE HUNDRED AND FORTY FIVE miles and for good measure let’s add non-stop.
I have a pre-race plan because I know that ultra distance runners do like to have pre race plans. Unfortunately, because I have a complete inability to discipline myself to stick to run/walk intervals and loathe walking in running races unless I absolutely can’t run a step further, my pre-race plan is the same as it always is for any distance: run until I can’t run any further, then stagger until I can’t stagger any further, then crawl until I can’t crawl any further – hopefully, somewhere before I reach the end of that plan I will have crossed the finish line in a decent position.
So we are off, it’s a nice day, ideal for running I would say and unsurprisingly the opening stages are social and enjoyable. I catch a few early miles with Ed Milbourne, and chat to various runners at points, trying desperately to keep the speed down. As I am not doing a run/walk routine I reach my first stop point at 14 miles, where my crew are waiting with a cup of tea, up in the first 15 or so runners in a time of 2 hours and 11 minutes…My crew impart the friendly advice, “Slow down you moron”.
Three or so minutes later and I am off again, and herein starts a pattern that continues for a large portion of Saturday - me overtaking the same people numerous times as my 6 mile an hour rate is faster than their pace but they aren’t stopping every 8 to 10 miles so they pass me again whilst I am standing by the van grabbing a cuppa and being insulted by my crew members. (Never underestimate the motivational powers of being ridiculed).
At around 40 miles Mike Smith threatens to throw me in the canal if I pass him again.
I hit 50 miles in just under 9 and a half hours, still feeling fresh, if a little heavy legged. By this time I am up into 8th. I have it in my head that the race doesn’t really start until 100 miles and, as long as I can get to 100 miles in under 20 hours, then even if I have to walk the last 45 miles, I should be able to post a respectable sub 35 hour time – that’s the theory anyway. Up until now the towpath is predominately narrow, slightly uneven grass tracks and very scenic countryside. Personally this makes it all the better as, for an off road runner, it is preferable to the vast stretches of evenly surfaced gravel paths that come later.
I attempt to eat a pot-noodle and manage about half – not the most luxurious tea. Up until this point I have snacked on a couple of Peperamis and one or two biscuits. Fluid coming in the form of water, coke or tea. I am trying to vary the fluid intake as I know from experience that large quantities of water make me nauseous and energy drinks or gels are a definite no go, and I am convinced their benefits on really long ultras are limited anyway.
The next stop is at 60 miles at Gayton Junction. My crew informs me that one of the front runners is starting to look very ropey and neither thinks he has a chance in hell of making it. Just before the road section over Blisworth tunnel (62 miles) I come across this runner sitting on a chair being tended to by his crew and looking very the worse for wear. Sure enough his race is over and it is as I go out onto the long road section over the tunnel that I first start to flag, my pace drops and I am a little concerned about getting to 100 in twenty hours.
On reflection it is after Navigation Bridge that my decline really starts. I get there about 7pm, 70 miles done and it’s still just daylight, I am now running in 6th place. My pace is down to 5 miles an hour at best and fatigue is starting to set in. Fiona’s skills as tea making lady are coming into their own, and Scott has the genius idea of bacon rolls so I am treated to one, freshly fried in the back of the van to the sound of “Angel of Death” by Slayer blasting out of the CD player - certainly far more of a pick me up than a crappy pot-noodle, that’s for sure. I am still in good spirits but I am definitely feeling heavy legged and a tad tired.
Something weird then happens. My brain starts turning to mush. At 71 miles I take a documented (and very simple) detour and get it wrong. I retrace my steps and come across another runner who asks me what I’m doing running back the wrong way up the course. He informs me that there is no longer a detour at this point. I thank him and run off into the distance. About five minutes later he catches back up with me to find me having clambered across a lock to stand on a piece ground between two locks that goes no where. Like a fool, I am staring up in front of me at a sign that points to London, trying to work out which side I should be on. He shouts me back over and pulls me back on course. That’s the last I see of him, I remember him saying he was trying to get a finish after a couple of failed attempts (one of which at 120 miles when in third place). I hope he made it and, if he happens to read this, Thanks, from the very confused runner you met after Navigation Bridge.
I just can’t concentrate on anything and start reading bridge numbers wrong. Looking at the map is a pointless exercise as I didn’t grab my head torch from the van last stop and it is now dark. Before 85 miles I have a disagreement on the mobile with Fiona about bridge numbers and insist that they have missed me. Unsurprisingly, once again, it is me being a dumb-ass. From here on in my crew decide that it is best that they catch me at any major bridge crossing or junction to ensure I don’t get lost.
I am still running at 85 miles and I have moved into 4th but I’m slowing and it is getting hard. The dark brings with it a sense of inevitability that real suffering is waiting ahead somewhere. Then it starts to rain heavily, the last threads of proper running are being drawn out of me as I get past 90 miles and, still in just shorts and a running t-shirt, I am getting cold, very cold. The rain is torrential by the time I get to my crew at the 96 mile point. I dive in the van and lay down. Everything is starting to ache badly. I feel cold and miserable and cannot stop shaking. I am made a cup of hot soup and take a twenty minute time-out in shelter to change and try and get my head back together as the rain hammers the roof of the van. Fiona offers to get out into the rain and escort me for a spell, and I tell her not to bother as it is too miserable, but I don’t mean it - I could do with some company. Luckily she knows me too well and ignores me, getting her wet weather running gear on and dragging me out of the van as time fast approaches 2am in the morning.
I have changed into some off road shoes and a pair of Sealskinz™ in an attempt to make the very wet and muddy conditions easier on my feet. Having Fiona run with me really helps. At the 100 mile checkpoint we come across Stuart Gillett who must have passed me whilst I was in the van. At this point I have stopped thinking about position and just presumed that tens of people had streamed past at my prolonged stop a few miles back. There seems to be some sort of minor admin mistake as for the second time I am presumed to be one of the “race supported” runners, committing the cardinal sin of taking a “race supported” place and then turning up with my own crew.
Fiona leaves me at 104 miles as the rain dies down and I get on with the job of struggling on through the rest of the night. I am down to a shuffling jog and starting to notice a pain in my right ankle. It’s a relief to see daylight but mentally I am broken. I am doing more walking than running (and I use the word running loosely - a pained shuffle would be far more apt). The pain in my ankle is getting real sharp and I can feel my foot swelling. I am lucky to see my support crew van at around 110 miles as daylight breaks because they have both fallen asleep inside. A knock on the window wakes them with a start and I take another lengthy time out to grab a rejuvenating cup of tea - only now the tea seems to have lost its rejuvenating powers. It’s clear to Fiona and Scott that I am struggling and this time Scott gets out onto the towpath to escort me a few miles. Scott is not a runner so I am impressed when, in his jeans, he runs me along the next three miles. I have to stop on multiple occasions as I just cannot keep it up. I am trying hard not to show it, but I feel like I am about to hit rock bottom.
At around 115 miles I am on my own again, I start to develop a limp and the best I can do is a slow walk. It’s raining again and I am trussed up in waterproofs to keep warm but I can’t stop shivering. I just want it to end. I can barely be moving at two and a half miles an hour. When I finally stagger into the Springwell Lock checkpoint at 120 miles, one of the marshals comments, “Look at the state of this guy”. I crawl into the back of the van and instantly fall asleep. Thirty-five or so minutes later I am awoken by a rap on the side of the van and one of the marshals telling me to get going or face disqualification. Fiona drags me out of the van and I hobble off into the distance behind her.
Something needed to change, I knew it and my crew knew it. My limp was pronounced now and walking was very painful. My mind was awash with negative thoughts, Fiona told me to think about things and either commit to going right to the Finish or quit now. “Don’t just string things out only to retire later on and risk long term injury.”
Unfortunately or fortunately (depending on where you stand) I had decided pre-race that, no matter what, quitting was not an option available to me. The only reasonable alternative was to get to the finishing line sooner rather than later. So I tried running again and it hurt less than walking, the sharp pain subsided to a dull ache and I hatched a plan. At 123 miles I told my crew to leave me on my own for 4 miles. I grabbed my walkman and told them I would either pull out in 4 miles time if I couldn’t improve my pace, or, I would get my pace back up and we would be back in a race again.
The slow run was working and the rain had subsided. I started to get my focus back and with it came some energy. I stopped thinking about just finishing and started thinking about my position again and not losing any more places (despite all my lost time I was, to my surprise, still in 7th owing to my relatively rapid early pace). I took my crew by surprise covering the 4 miles at 4½ mph pace. Seeing their smiles when they saw me and realised I’d got my drive back, inspired me more. I stopped only briefly before telling them to meet me in five miles time.
It’s strange how if you can get your head sorted your body follows. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t think straight as, having done the last 45 miles a couple of times before in the Tring2Town, I could do the remainder of the route on Autopilot. I was back in a race and I was running again (albeit very slowly!). No more stopping, this was it straight to the Finish. I managed to beat my crew to the next planned stop when they got momentarily lost, so they caught me at the 133 mile checkpoint. I met them there and briefly refilled with water, before carrying straight on. My second wind was nearly spent but it didn’t matter as there was now a sense of urgency to proceedings. I kept the run up until Piggery Bridge at 139 miles. My crew refilled for me and told me I was only 25 minutes or so behind Harley Inder in 6th. I ran off with my addled brain frantically trying to calculate the speed required to get in under 34 hours and push myself into the 33 hour range. If I could just up the pace could I grab back a position?
Unfortunately no matter how positive my mind was, the reality was that my body was no longer capable. The Paddington Arm’s seemingly endless long hard gravel paths and tarmac sections do nothing to assist, only amplifying the pain in the soles of my feet. The inevitable drop to a walk occurs three miles before the Finish and with it comes the searing pain in my ankle again, but now all I am concerned with is not being overtaken by anyone in the closing stages. I stagger as fast as I can manage (it takes me an hour and three quarters to cover the final 6 miles!) to the Finish, just managing to muster a cross the line “run” to make 7th in 34 hours and 14 minutes. Dick hangs the medal around my neck and I cannot stop smiling.
It is hard to explain how difficult the GUCR is. I have heard quite a few times that Ultra distance running is all about peaks and troughs, if that is the case then the GUCR definitely provides you with the deepest troughs you will ever want to come across. The beauty of it is in its simplicity. This is a race that makes no concessions to cater for getting people around. There is little glamour to it. It is not packaged as an adventure or somewhere to find your inner strength. It is just a running race. A big distance ultra presented to you in the format of a Cross country 20 miler – absolute Genius.
* the below information is not presented as sound advice, its purely an account of what I used to get myself through and my thoughts.
What did I drink?
Predominately water interspersed with coke and tea.
3 litres of coke over the course and probably a dozen or so cups of tea, I used disposable cups for the hot drinks that I could just crunch up and put in my shorts pocket when finished with – this meant I could walk away from the van drinking the tea keeping the van stops shorter and still covering ground on the course whilst refueling. Interspersing the cold drinks with hot ones was really important to me as I have a track record of vomiting when trying to keep down large quantities of water.
What did I eat?
2 Muller rice’s, 2 bananas, about half a pot noodle, 1 pack of “nice and spicy” nik naks, about 4 Peperamis, two chicken noodle soups, one bacon roll, a couple Jaffa cake bars and a few Fox’s crunch cream biscuits and a few sweets.
It seemed to work quite well and kept the sugar/salt balance in check. Once again I know from previous experience that I lose a lot of salt so selected foods that I thought I would be able to eat and that compensated.
You will notice a complete lack of energy drinks or sports products. Whilst they might work for some all they do for me is ensure the onset of nausea.
The following helped enormously
A big pot of Vaseline!
A van to briefly shelter in at your lowest moments, and also to allow your crew to shelter in. (An infinitely better idea than expecting people to crew from the boot of a car)
An organized, generally decent at navigating and fun to be with support crew. (I purposely excluded experienced runners from my crew, on the basis that I generally didn’t like the idea of using support runners)
A gas burner for teas and soups.
What did I learn form this attempt? What would I change on a second attempt?
I would do the same again; get to 100 relatively
quickly then wing the rest. I think that if you don’t dwell too much on pacing the whole thing and just accept that the race is all about torturous suffering on the Sunday and that’s what you are there for, then your mind is less prone to look for excuses to quit.
For that matter, would I do it again?
Absolutely no bloody way, not a chance in hell…
…but hold on I’m sure with out the ankle problem and long spells of heavy rain I have the potential knock a good couple hours off….and a 32 hour finish on the hall of fame would be a splendid thing…and large chunks of it are quite enjoyable….I wonder if Fiona and Scott fancy a nice weekend on the canal again next year…?