Tim's 2007 Race Report

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by Tim Holsgrove

Tim's 2007 Race Report

2007 Winner Tim Holsgrove's Report

I entered the 2006 GUCR with little (no) experience of ultra-running and as a consequence I could have been a little (lot) better prepared. In retrospect I am happy to have got as far as Navigation Bridge but since then I had been determined to get all the way to Little Venice in 2007.

My training had gone very well leading up to the race and it was nice to recognise a few faces as people carried out their last minute preparations in Gas Street. I met Jim Burns, from Bath and he introduced me to Stuart Gillet, also from Bath. I had sorted my food and drink into rations that could be handed to me at each meeting point by my support crew, initially comprising of just Pete Giddings.

I always find the moments before the start of ultra races amusing. There is the obvious nervousness of a big race, people looking around at each other not knowing how the event will unfold. Yet because the race is so long, itís crucial not to overcook it at the start. This results in a tense wait for the starterís gun, immediately followed by a resistance by almost everyone to lead the pack.

I bumped into Mike Smith at the start and he congratulated me on a good run in the Jurassic Coast Challenge at the end of March, which we had both run in. That was an excellent confidence booster before the start of the race. Then, after a few words from Dick we were off, slowly making our way from the centre of Birmingham towards London. The race strung out quickly but within the long line of runners hoping to cover the 145 miles, small groups tended to form as people chatted to pass the time. I slotted into a group of about four people including Alicja and Mark Wittering. I recognised them from 2006 so thought they would be good people to pace myself with during the early stages of the race.

Around the first checkpoint, I ended up running on my own behind the two leaders. I was happy with my pace and so kept running on my own. Itís often all too easy to be chatting with someone, only to find that you have sped up or slowed down. If itís at the start of a race itís usually speeding up, which can have major consequences later on.

At the second checkpoint (Hatton Locks) my two sisters and brother-in-law had come from Warwick to watch. I was only there long enough to get another drinks bottle and nutrigrain bar from Pete and say hello to them, but it was good to have them come and support me. I would no doubt remember their support when it started to hurt.

It was also around the second checkpoint found myself at the front of the race and was running for short periods with Steve Pope. We chatted a little and then were switching places as we made various stops for food etc. I was surprised by how little food he was taking on but he had mentioned that heíd done some 24 hour races so seemed experienced in making sure he was getting enough food and drink.

By mid morning it had already started to warm up, my trainers were also feeling a little flat so at the 35.9 mile checkpoint at Birdingbury Bridge I switched to another pair. These were half a size bigger so felt more roomy than the others but I was sure that my feet would swell to fit them by the end of the race.

Steve and I were still running at about the same pace and I was thankful that it was sunny and dry around the 40 mile mark, as thatís were the canal path deteriorates most. At times itís little more than a foot wide bank by the canal and not something that is easy to run along in the wet. A few canal boats wished us luck, the phrase, ďnot far nowĒ, was a particular favourite.

After about 45 miles Steve stopped for water and that was the last I saw of him. There was a cafť at Norton Junction and it was nice to get support from the people there. Having our names written on our numbers came into its own at places like this where someone was sure to cheer you on by your name. I hadnít realised what a difference it would make. Iíd been in a bad state by this point in 2006 but now I felt good, it had taken about 8 hours to get just less than 50 miles.

I donít particularly remember the course during the next 10 miles. I just remember thinking how difficult it had been the year before, which gave me the confidence that I would be able to make it to the finish this time.

I got to Gayton Junction a little ahead of Pete, so rang him and sat down on a lock. My brother and his girlfriend had come to see how I was doing; as theyíd driven for a couple of hours from Manchester I thought I would have a bit of a chat. We walked along the canal for a few minutes and they seemed surprised at how fresh I looked for having run 60 miles. Again this was a great confidence booster and as I set on my way I remembered how I had broken down on the stretch between here and Navigation Bridge last year. I remembered the places I had knelt down to try and stretch my quads, knowing full well that the problem was fatigue and no amount of stretching would help. I remember running up the steep hill off the canal path and onto the section of road, and being cheered on by other support crews because I was the first person to run up it rather than walk, only to immediately slow to a walk for most of the road section and struggle more and more to keep running thereafter. Remembering how bad I had felt made me feel stronger; there was no way I wasnít going to finish this year.

There were more people at Stoke Bruerne and they were really supportive, as well as a little baffled by the idea of running from Birmingham to London. ďBirmingham to London! How many days?Ē
ďIn one go, hopefully about 30 hours.Ē

Still, thatís the response I get from most people so Iíve got used to it, as Iím sure most other ultra-runners have.

I arrived at Navigation Bridge and had another quick sit down while I ate yet another nutrigrain bar. Then I was off, on unexplored territory, at least for me anyway. Soon after Navigation bridge there was a diversion that passed a train station. It was here that additional support would come in the form of Dave Phasey, he was going to run sections of the route with me through the night.

I felt good going through Milton Keynes, got a good cheer from a young group on a canal boat and then got the only hostile behaviour of the race. Firstly, from a swan protecting his/her young, which made me wonder why swans always take their young onto the towpath rather than the grass verge? Secondly, from a group of young fishermen on the other side of the canal, who gave me a bit of verbal abuse. I donít think Iíve ever seen anyone catch a fish from a canal, so I suppose they have to do something to pass the time.

It was at checkpoint 6 (Bridge 99), after 84.5 miles that my legs started to hurt. Dave ran with me for the next section so I didnít worry about it too much. We spent a fair amount of the time catching up as we hadnít seen each other for a while.

After Dave had run with me for about an hour I was on my own again, it was dark by this point so I had put my head torch on and carried on plodding away. Dave generally ran about 6 miles with me and then I did about 6 miles on my own. During this period a couple of major things happened.

I learnt to take a piss whilst running. Tricky and potentially messy; I experimented a little and found a sideways shuffle worked best.

The weather got bad. It started to rain a little and then it started to rain a lot.

As it was dark now I wasnít really paying attention to much except the path in front of me and looking out for where I was due to cross bridges, the last thing I wanted to do was to take a wrong turn.

As I headed towards Marsworth junction I knew I had to cross a bridge and make sure I didnít go onto the wrong arm of the canal but couldnít make out the bridge numbers very well. I heard some people in a canal boat, so asked for directions. Unfortunately, after he had fallen over getting out to see who would be on the canal path at around midnight, it became apparent that he was less aware of where he was than I. A quick phone call to Pete reassured me that I was going in the right direction and that I needed to cross the bridge ahead and get on the right hand side of the canal.

Shortly after the navigational blip I arrived at the Grand Junction Arms. It was just after midnight, so Iíd taken just over 18 hours to cover almost 100 miles. The volunteers at the checkpoints were all very helpful and deserve the greatest thanks for making the event the success it is. I particularly remember the two ladies at the Grand Junction Arms for having such an inviting array of chairs and food available under shelter from the rain. Almost too inviting, but I resisted the temptation to sit down; I was worried I might not get up, so instead perched on the end of a picnic table while I had a little to eat. ďOnly 45 miles to go,Ē one of the ladies said. I was starting to feel like I was at the beginning of the end, though I knew that a lot can happen in 45 miles.

Almost as soon as I left the checkpoint I took a wrong turn when the path went away from the canal. I ended up running through a field and thankfully saw a road at the end, climbed over the wall and got back on track at the bridge at Tring cutting.

Now all I could see other than the towpath was the rain bouncing off the surface of the water. It was actually quite calming and as I had enough clothes on to keep warm, the rain didnít bother me at this point. My legs on the other hand were really hurting and I needed to force myself to keep going. The sections with Dave werenít too bad as he was offering constant support and setting a good pace for me to keep up with. As I approached a bridge I hoped that I would see a silhouette of Pete standing underneath for shelter so I could tick off another 6 or so miles.

I put more clothes on during the night. The rain was soaking through everything and I just put more on top to keep warm enough.

I canít really remember when it started to get light, but I do remember it was still raining. I got to 120 miles at Springwell lock and realised that I was going to do it. Only a marathon to go. Still, that was going to be a very painful marathon. By this point everything was sore from the waist down, everything from the waist up may have been sore too but my brain was probably prioritising and only letting me know about the worst areas in the hope that I might do something about it, like stop. No chance, I was walking more and more but I wasnít going to stop.

Besides, I thought to myself that as long as I was in the lead I it was bad form to give up. And as I was close to the finish now I didnít want to be overtaken. So I reached a catch-22 situation that meant I had stay in the lead and therefore I had to keep going. Painful but satisfying if it worked.

Dave helped a lot 25-13 miles from Little Venice. We would choose a point to run to and then have a quick walk, then choose another bridge, boat, elephant on a boat, no wait that was a tree behind a boat. This went on and on, just focusing on small sections, putting one foot in front of the other It was harder on the sections I was on my own, I would let myself walk a bit more and run a bit less.

The last 12 miles were all on my own and were really hard. I would see a bush in the distance and confuse it for Pete and think I only had 6 miles once I got to him. I was also paranoid about being caught. What would I do if someone came striding along at this point? Before starting I had thought that it would be nice to win, and had thought I could finish in about 30 hours but my main aim was to finish. Now I had been leading for about 90 miles I wanted to win, I had to. But could I respond if someone came past? I didnít have a clue how close the next person was and I also knew I should stop looking around and get on with running forwards.

When I got to 6 miles to go I started to flip between two thoughts: ďItís only 6 miles, easy, just run it and donít stop until the finish.Ē And, ďitís only 6 miles, I can walk it and itíll be fine, I wonít get caught now. Will I?Ē This resulted in me doing much the same run walk routine as before. I saw signs for Paddington, 4ĺ miles, 4 miles, 4Ĺ miles. Generally it annoys me when signs do that, but now I really hated it.

By now Sunday morning runners were out along the towpath, mainly giving me strange looks. Then as I came to more built up areas I knew I was close and managed to run a bit more. As I came around a bend I saw an ĎFí on a banner, then an Ďií and an Ďní, I was confident what the rest said so started to speed up, surprising myself that I could.

My mum and dad had been in London for the weekend so had come to see me finish. My dad jogged with me for the last hundred meters, I donít think Iíve seen him run that far in a while. As I crossed the line I had a mixed feeling of satisfaction and relief. I sat down and Dick immediately got me to stand up again to receive the trophy, it was painful to keep standing but worth it. Then I got into some dry clothes and hobbled to get something other than nutrigrain bars or Hi-5 energy drink.

Dave left to get the tu be home. He seemed happy that heíd covered about 30 miles and I was glad he had been able to help so much. My mum and dad left to get the train from Paddington. Just as we were leaving we saw Stuart finish, I would have liked to hang around a little longer but my body disagreed. I started to feel sorry for Pete, who after staying up all night driving, standing in the rain, and being questioned by police as to his reasons for hanging around a canal bridge in the middle of the night, was now going to drive me back to Bath and then drive to his parents in Swindon. Even if I was planning to run again next year, Pete deserves a break. I aim to have another go though, perhaps in a couple of years.