GUCR 2005 by Martin Ilott

Notes > Competitor reports > GUCR 2005 by Martin Ilott

by Martin Ilott

GUCR 2005 by Martin Ilott

Martin Ilott's account of the 2005 race

Grand Union Canal Race 2005 – Britain’s longest continuous running race

Martin Ilott Runner 55

27th-28th May 2005

Gas St Birmingham to Little Venice, London

145 miles cut-off time 45 hours.

The Grand Union Canal race has become one of the most prestigious ultra-races, noted for the off-road course, fantastic scenery and camaraderie between fellow runners. The key to this successful race is the dedication of the race Director, Dick Kearn of the Compton Harriers, who established the race in the early 1990s. Dick is supported by his family and loyal crew to ensure that all runners are adequately supported for the entire length of the course. This presents major logistical difficulties to provide the necessary feed and baggage points for both the faster runners, completing the race in less than 30 hr to those struggling in under the cut-off time of 45 hr! The fatigue of the event organisers and accompanying support crews is equal to that of any runner (well almost). It is low key, with no goody bag, foil wrap or isotonic drinks. The medal is significantly larger than a standard city marathon memento and race results and a certificate follow in the post.

The race is held each May bank holiday weekend. The rules are simple; to complete the 145 miles from Gas St Basin, Birmingham to Little Venice, Paddington in less than 45 hours with stops no longer than 30 minutes. The route is fairly easy to follow – keep on the towpath – but a number of deviations and inter-linking canals have confused a number of runners over the years. One individual disappeared down the Oxford canal and was too traumatised after struggling for several hours along the wrong canal path to contemplate re-tracing their footsteps.

2005 was my first successful attempt at the distance after four successive, but unsuccessful ventures. What advice can I bestow on club members contemplating the event? First, the race comes highly recommended, a fantastic experience unlikely to be forgotten and the ultimate challenge for those wanting something more than a marathon.

1. Training advice. 145 miles is a long way! However, walkers can complete the race. A speed of only 3 miles per hour is sufficient to complete the course in 45 hr. The distance requires participants to run conservatively for the first 12 hr. Training runs never exceeded 25 miles or more than 4 hr. Night runs were important in acclimatising to the requirements of over 24 hr continuous running. These runs had been neglected in previous years and were probably a key factor in the success in 2005. Daily runs of 15 miles for 5-6 days per week formed the platform for endurance. Long Slow Distance (LSD) over several months led to a noticeable decrease in speed and performances over all distances up to and including the marathon. If this could concern you, do not consider the GUCR!

2. Diet. There a plenty of feed stations along the route. I carried a rucksack with various “goodies”, but soon found the usual favourites – chocolate, flapjacks and jelly babies unpalatable. “Joosters”, yoghurt, bread and ice-cream were favourites, especially Magnums from the canal-lock shops and cafes en route! The feed stations offered various cooked and uncooked staples of pasta, potatoes, biscuits and sandwiches and hot and cold drinks including squash, coffee, tea and hot-chocolate. It is worth experimenting with various food options. Two unsuccessful attempts were the result of either nausea or diarrhoea.

3. Find a committed and tolerant support crew. Most runners have the additional support of a dedicated crew of loyal family or friends. Pick them carefully. The race is tough and the schedule of meeting points and lack of sleep can test the most enduring friendship or relationship. It is extremely difficult for one individual to adequately support a runner over the entire route. To navigate the minor criss-crossing roads along the canal and locate a series of almost identical canal bridges is tough. To locate the necessary feed and drink requests of an increasingly irritable runner from the back of chaotic boot in fading light can be stressful for those untrained in conflict resolution.

4. Race tactics. Run conservatively and do not go off too fast. I started at 12 minutes/mile pace, slowed during the night stage, but speeded up on the second day, moving from virtually last place to 11th overall. I used a night companion for the most difficult stage through Milton-Keynes. Milton-Keynes is pretty depressing in daylight, but verging suicidal at night after 80 previous hard miles. Take plenty of warm clothes for this section. A previous error was to underestimate the drop in nighttime temperatures during the early hours. There are a few uphill sections of canal and the occasional steep bridge. Walk up these sections. One runner completed the last 12 miles walking backwards to ease the cramp and pain in various leg muscles.

5. Race aids. I used a Walkman for some of the course. A Ruth Rendall mystery “Adam & Eve and Pinch Me” comes highly recommended. Some carried i-pods, although the majority preferred solitude or the passing race banter of fellow runners. There were approximately 80 entrants this year with about 25 completing the event. Vaseline is essential for feet, armpits, groin and buttocks. Apply liberally to all these areas. Sun cream on hot sunny days and a cap to provide shade to the face and eyes. Take plenty of changes of socks and spare pairs of shoes. Rain or wet grass lead to wet & uncomfortable socks and shoes and inevitably blisters. I took 8 pairs of socks and used all of them. The GEO Grand Union Canal Maps 1 and 3 are useful, but not essential for runners. They are however vital for support crews. The other essentials are mobile phones.

6. Final notes. I stayed in the Travel lodge in B irmingham. This is competitively priced (£45) and only 200m from the start. The train journey from Euston to Birmingham New St was £12 single and took 1hr 30 (the return journey took 36 hr 25 minutes) and the Travel lodge is a short walk from the station. Arrive early on Friday; get an early night as the race begins at 6 am Saturday. The race is very enjoyable. The support from fellow runners, race crews and people enjoying the canal and footpaths is fantastic. The locks, bridges, Inns, Aqueducts and historical landmarks passed on the journey are wonderful and so too are the myriad of canal boats moored along the banks. Would I do it again ………………………………….. ?????????????????????????????