So, how do you prepare yourself for a 145 mile race in the space of a week?
That was the question I was asking myself a week last Friday following a flurry of emails between myself, the RD & a certain fetchie. You wing it, that’s how.
The Grand Union Canal Race is one of those races that you hear about in hushed tones amongst the ultra running community, it’s just too far & relentlessly tough, physically & mentally for most people & it’s certainly one that when I first heard of it thought to myself that that was just mental. 145miles along a canal path can & does destroy the souls of many of the entrants, with an average of about a 60% attrition rate it makes no bones about how tough it actually is.
Let’s start at the beginning. November 2009, normally the entrants in this race are selected purely on a first come, first served basis. Knowing this & failing to get into the event the previous year by missing the deadline only by a day, I was determined to not miss out on this years by actually driving my application over to the RD’s house on the evening that the forms were emailed out to us. However, this was not to be as due to the postal strikes the RD decided that this year the entrants would be selected in an email ballot. Bugger!! Those of you that know me know that I’m the most unlucky person in the world when it comes to things like that. I was proven right when just about every other person I know who applied was accepted apart from myself.
Fast forward onto May 2010, when I receive an email from the RD Dick Kearn on the 20th of May saying that a couple of people had dropped out & would I like a place. I told him no, then posted about it on the ultra thread, I then got an email saying that I’d be mad to even contemplate it at such short notice, **BUT** if I did then they would help out as much as possible. Yes or no, yes or no?? It was only about 6 weeks ago that I’d injured my knee & that still hadn’t healed properly so my training up-to that point was pretty poor. Only a few people know why I wanted to do this race & so I grabbed it reasoning that even if I DNF’d it was worth the gamble. A quick email to Dick to confirm my entry & I was in! OMFG!!
Cue Nx, my Crew Captain for this race. I have to say that she as awesome in helping me prepare, I say helping, she actually did all the work & was amazing when I was having my doubts about actually getting everything ready in time. A new thread was started asking for help from fetcheveryone & it was answered fantastically well by the team I came to call Ogees Angels (Sorry Rob, but you were an angel as well).
Friday & registration, Lurker picked me up from the train station & we went off for some very tasty Fish & Chips before heading to get my number. We missed Anna & Mx Hornet by about 10mins but I bumped into Binks at the bar & Harnser who was having dinner with his crew. I sat with them & chatted for about 10mins trying to pluck up the courage to actually collect my number. A pint of beer later & No52 was fluttering in my hand. Feeling very drained, Lurks dropped me back into town & off to bed I went.
Saturday, Race Day.
Early start at 4.30 with a quick breakfast of coffee & a banana, couldn’t quite face anything else to eat although I knew that I should eat as much as possible. Showered, dressed & on my way to Gas Street Basin for the start. Saw quite a few familiar faces at the start of the race & plenty of new ones as well. We all wandered down to the start line by the canal & Dick pointed us in the right direction.
A short countdown & we were off, finally all my hard work & preparation was about to come into play. NO HANG ON!! This is where I was going to start winging it. Let’s do an hours running before I have a walk & so that’s what I did. After my hour I had a 5 min walk and then settled into a 25/5 routine which I was going to try to maintain for the rest of the race. (I didn’t)
I kept up the pace all the way to Hatton Locks & the first meeting point for my crew(22 miles) arriving about 30mins ahead of schedule, had a cup of coffee & scoffed a pot noodle (it’s the only way to eat them). Had a quick chat to my crew & I was on my way, spending only 15mins at the crew point.
Next meeting point was at Birdingbury Bridge 14 miles away which was going to be a proper food stop. I was still feeling strong & running very well keeping to my 25/5 routine. The next 14 miles passed uneventfully & I arrived at the checkpoint 45mins early. Had another pot noodle & a coffee, keeping myself wrapped up in a blanket whilst Ruth fussed over me like a mother hen. When she was satisfied that I had eaten & drunk enough she let me on my way, another 15min checkpoint. Keeping these to a minimum was the only way I wasn’t going to get too cold or stiff. Total miles ran was now 36.
My next target was 12 miles away at Buckby top lock where I was due to meet my crew again, I was still going strong but the rain had been coming down for several hours now & it was beginning to wear me down a bit, I still kept up my 25/5 routine but having been running for so long, I wasn’t able to digest any food properly & so my stomach was starting to bloat out & I was starting to feel a little sick. A couple of times I had to go to the side & see if I could throw up but nothing was coming out & I really didn’t feel like forcing myself to be sick as I figured that I’d be needing as much calorie intake as I could get over the next 24hrs or so & didn’t really want to lose any. 30 mins away from the checkpoint & I sent a message to the crew that I needed new socks & a sandwich. I couldn’t face any more noodles at that moment. I stormed into the checkpoint & waiting for me was my sandwich & a complete change of clothes if I needed them, I decided against a full change as although it had stopped raining the clouds were still very dark & threatening. Sitting me down & wrapping me up in a blanket the crew went to work on me, one of them taking off my sodden trainers & socks & drying off my feet while another was making me eat & drink, you may think this a little odd but when you’re worn out you really do need someone to bark orders at you & make sure you’re still doing the right things. New socks on & I was on my way, another quick checkpoint, total mileage 48.5.
Leaving this checkpoint I had to say goodbye to one of my crew members as they had to go, I knew that due to the last minute prep that they all had other things to do & that they were really putting themselves out for me in helping out. This didn’t make it any easier & I was a little upset at them going. This must’ve of came across as they never told me again when one of them were leaving, I’d just turn up at a checkpoint & they’d be gone, I’d ask where they were and was told not to worry as they’d gone & to concentrate on the job in hand. The longer the race went on the more upsetting this actually got for me as I never had the chance to say goodbye to them.
My decision not to change my clothes was justified as within 20mins of leaving the checkpoint the heavens opened again & it really tipped it down, the rain was almost biblical at times but at least it wasn’t too windy & so I just plodded on. Next crew point was 12 miles away & that was what I was looking forward to. I was feeling quite revitalised by my cheese & pickle sarnie & upped my pace a little. The 25/5 just disappeared for a while as I was feeling very strong & I kept up a good pace for about an hour or so. I flew through the Heart of England checkpoint & never stopped, just shouted a quick hello to Sharon & James who were marshalling & carried on. This running high did come to an end & a running low soon followed. When the low hit I went back into my 25/5 routine & mixed it up with a couple of 10min walks as well. I was still well ahead of schedule & feeling tired but very confident, James caught up with me just before my next crew point when I was having quite a low point & I was complaining about how far away the bridge was that I was supposed to be meeting my crew, having done this race a couple of times before he knew what I was going through & I think he just agreed with everything I was saying at that point knowing that I wasn’t even halfway & things weren’t going to get any easier.
The bridge soon came into view & we crossed it together to arrive at my crew point, again they were awesome, tending to my every need. James also sampled the Angels hospitality along with Vinnie’s crew who had turned up at the same place. There was quite a crowd of us at one point & we were having a good laugh about the absurdity of it all, I spent a bit longer at this checkpoint than I wanted to & it was an effort to get going again as I my legs had stiffened up quite a bit by then. It probably took me about 2 or 3 mins just to be able to get running properly again. Total mileage 60.6
Just 10miles to go to Navigation Bridge, where I was due to change into my night running gear. Knowing how low I felt after my last “high” I made sure that I didn’t fly off again & stuck to my 25/5 routine, time passed very quickly & I made it to Navigation Bridge 2hrs ahead of schedule, met up with Nicole, my crew captain but sadly lost another crew member without saying goodbye. Goodbye Tess. Into the pub car park where my crew again fussed over me, feeding me & sorting to my every needs, my night time running gear was all ready for my & they were going to hold up some towels so I could change but at that point I couldn’t care less & told them I was just going to change “Au Natural”, they looked away while I changed my shorts & before I could say ok you can turn around, Sarah said “Right he’s done”. “Ha ha ha”, I said “Sarah were you peeking?” “Only a little bit” she replied laughing her head off. Made us all chuckle for a little while. I was force fed another sandwich & drinks & I was on my way. This time it really was hard to get going again & although Navigation Bridge is commonly thought of as halfway you still actually have 75miles to go. Total mileage 70
My crew arranged to pop up at various locations during the next couple of hrs so that I wouldn’t be too long on my own when night descended. I just agreed with whatever they were saying as I knew they had my best interests at heart.
Night time & so much for the promised clear skies but cold weather we were promised, it was overcast & I struggled to see anything , a quick text to the crew saying that I needed my hand torch as well as the head torch I was already using & up they popped within 3 miles with my torch. My next proper checkpoint was 15 miles past Navigation Bridge but my Angels kept popping up at all these different locations over the next 3hrs just shouting encouragement at me & generally keeping me sane.
I don’t know about other runners but I have the ability to be able to switch off during really long runs & so I never get bored & this ability was worth its weight in gold during the night as you couldn’t see a damn thing anyway.
Next checkpoint & I was still ahead of schedule, more food & drink & away I went again. Feeling very pleased as this was the furthest I’d ever run before. Total mileage85
This routine went on all night; I tried just to shut off completely as it is mind numbingly boring trotting along next to a canal in the dark. I tried keeping to my 25/5 routine but as I was very tired now it more or less changed to a 20/10 as I was just keeping going, forcing one foot in front of the other & making sure that I never stopped.
More checkpoints, more food & drink & more TLC from my Angels. The crew were great as they were just popping up in various locations throughout the night which helped a lot in breaking the monotony of the event. At about 3am I saw my first Elephant, I knew from speaking to others that you do experience a few oddities from running no stop for such a long time & in the dark I could’ve sworn that the tree across the canal was a bloody Elephant. I had to look several times just to make sure it wasn’t, this however was nothing compared to the evil looking Pixie who was staring at me from the fence of a lockkeepers cottage about 30mins later. It scared me so much that if I wasn’t actually running a race I would’ve turned around & gone the other way! Drawing level with it I was preparing for it to pounce out on me but was relieved when I saw that the Pixie was just a clump of weeds, I could’ve sworn he was staring at me seconds earlier. Nasty looking f**ker he was as well!!
Day break & I was one relieved fella, no more elephants or pixies please. I was still going but not feeling very strong anymore, my body had started to complain about the abuse it was under & things were starting to go wrong, another checkpoint & another crew change. More food, more coffee & more complaining from my body, I was starting to get a few issues now but my crew responded to them all, painkillers, gels & a quick massage on my shoulders all helped to get me on my way again. I never told them about the Elephant or the pixie in case they thought I was losing it & wanted to pull me from the race. Total mileage 108.5
Starting off from this checkpoint took me ages, my legs were so stiff that the crew had to physically push me just to get me moving. Only 37 miles to go & all of them were going to be in beautiful sunshine, perfect. I kept moving at a steady pace now but again feeling very tired my 25/5 routine had gone out of the window by now & I was just running for as long as I could before walking, although I did try to keep some sort of timing strategy so that I could keep my mind a little active & not fall asleep. At 8.30 I sent out a text to a few of my mates who were following my progress saying that I’d just passed the 115 mile mark. I’d been doing this for the whole of the race & read the replies from them during my walking sessions. To my surprise most of them were very concerned that I hadn’t texted them during the night & kept them up to date with my progress, however reading all the replies kind of made me quite emotional, with even getting a text from my Godfather in Ireland. I’d kept it quiet from most of my family as it was such short notice & I didn’t want them to worry about me. Into the next checkpoint & I told the crew about the pain in my leg which had started a while earlier, they sprayed it up & gave it a massage, fed & watered me, changed my shirt & socks & sent me on my way again. Total mileage 120.3
About this time I was really starting to have some serious concerns, my body was rebelling about the enormous strain I was putting it under & I’d started to pee blood, this didn’t concern me & so I never mentioned it to my crew as it’s something that happens to long distance runners, something to do with your bladder wall rubbing. However what was concerning me was the pain in my leg that had developed a bit earlier & was getting steadily worse, added to that I’d started to cough up blood. Lots of things were going through my head now & although I wasn’t panicking I knew that I could be in trouble & a DNF was becoming a possibility. SHIT!! All that way & to DNF would’ve killed me at that point. I came into the next crew point & poured out my concerns to Nicole, I was probably very emotional at that point & told her that she wasn’t to let me quit no matter what happened. She was great, sprayed up my leg & gave it a quick rub down but also told me that she was going to buddy run me in just to keep her eye on me so that if I did get in trouble there was someone there to get help. I readily agreed to this as I just wanted to keep going, my poor crew didn’t know what was happening at that point as I’d pulled Nicole to one side to tell her my woes. Total mileage now 127.5
Just moving my body was now a huge effort & even though I was still “running” I was probably only going about 3mph & every part of my body was now screaming at me to stop, sometimes I’m glad I’m deaf as I just ignored it & kept going, my mind had taken over a long time ago & I wasn’t going to stop as long as I could just keep putting one foot in front of the other. Nicole caught me up just after I’d gone a mile from the checkpoint & bless her she ran about 20 ft in front of me as she knew I needed as much space as possible, then the nosebleeds started. “Christ” I thought “Can anything else go wrong?” Luckily it was over quite quickly & only happened a couple more times on the run.
Into the last checkpoint where I saw a face I know I knew but just couldn’t put a name to it until she bounced up to me, it was Claire from Serpentine runners, She’d promised me a mars bar at that point but I was in no state to eat it, everything was just going wrong now & all I could do was keep down water, however my crew sat me down & fussed over me making sure that I ate something & just gave me water & a quick rub down. They emptied my back pack & just gave me a bottle of water to carry for the last few miles, the sun was now beating down & I was starting to suffer from that as well. Knowing that I’d stiffen up the longer I stayed there but also knowing that I needed to rest they timed it perfectly & got me on my way by dragging me out of my chair & push starting me again. Total mileage 133
12 miles to go, I have to say that they were the hardest 12miles of my life, less than a half marathon & I thought about 3.5 hrs to finish it. Head down & just go for it as best as we can. James now joined us as there was a diversion just ahead & he showed us the way. At that point the last thing you need are any inclines & just going up the road it seemed like I was climbing a mountain, my quads had been shot by the monotony of the canal by about mile 60 so 75 miles later this was just pure agony for me, going up or down the pain was just intense. Thank god for painkillers.
Through the diversion & James left us to go back & help others through it, back on the canal now & back into some sort of routine, although completely shattered my body now stopped complaining as it probably realised that I wasn’t going to stop, the leg kept getting worse though but I wasn’t listening to it now. The sun was really beating down now & I’d drunk most of the water from my bottle, Nicole came back & topped my bottle from hers & said that we only had a couple of miles to go until we met up with the crew again for a water top up, goody! There was no shade along this stretch & after over 32hrs on my feet I was just shattered.
We met up with Rob & Mel with 6 miles to go, topped up the water bottles & we were on our way again. Total mileage 139
Head down & just finish now, that’s all I kept telling myself, ignore the leg, the blood, all the pain & get to the damn finish. 6miles is nothing when you’ve already run 139, but they can be the most emotional of your life. I allowed my mind to wander & thought about how much everybody on my crew had done for me, not just over the last day or so but over the last week & so I felt a duty to them to get to the end & cross the line. I have to admit that a couple of tears may have dripped down my face in the last couple of hours. Nics jogged back to me & said that Ruth, one of my crew from the Saturday was waiting for me at the finish along with Terry & wife. Well that gave me a lump in my throat as Terry is my running mentor & he helped me along so much during my early days of running. Got to finish now FFS! Head down, keep going just keep going. 1 mile down, 5 to go although the signs were telling us that the course was longer, Nicole was telling me that they were reading long & after all she had already done for me I wouldn’t doubt her now. Another mile down & 4 to go. I kept telling myself to “Keep going Allan, just put one foot in front of the other & repeat you’ll get there”.
4 long miles to go, suddenly it’s 3 & I could taste the finish line, just moving at a snails pace but I’m still moving & thats all that counts. Just following the path & I could see a couple walking towards me up the canal path. The man took his sunglasses off & had a real hard look at me before bursting into a great big smile saying “Bloody hell it is you Allan”, it was Terry & his wife Kath who had come up to see me finish, I gave Kath a kiss hello & went to shake Terrys hand but he just grabbed me & gave me a big hug saying “well done mate, you’ve done brilliantly”. Well that nearly did me completely & I had to use nearly all the strength I had left to stop from bursting into tears there & then. I said thanks but couldn’t really say too much as I had a huge lump in my throat, I took this opportunity to have a 5 min walk with them as they asked me a few questions about the race, I answered as best as I could but I was also starting to stiffen up as well.
I asked “How long to the finish” & was told about 30 mins run, I said cheerio to them & jogged off as quick as I could, Nicole in the meantime had shot off to see how far away the finish was & came back to me saying that she couldn’t find it, bugger!! Didn’t want to get lost now but her fears were unfounded as we jogged & walked together for about another 20 mins & then she left me again when I was having another walk, a couple of mins later my mobile went off & it was my Captain giving her final orders to me, “When you get to the next corner I want you to run in, everybody is there waiting for you”
Well, you can’t disobey an order like that now can you & so when I was about 10 yards from the next corner I started to run, probably faster than I had in the last 4 or 5 hours as well, I rounded the corner & started to see a few familiar faces, members of my crew, race entrants who had pulled out & other support crews who I had seen throughout the last day or so, steeling myself so that I wouldn’t cry I ran on waving at people who were waving at me & then I saw it. A big white banner with the word FINISH on it, my god I was here, only 100 yards to go & it would be all over!
30 seconds later & that was that I’d crossed the line to the sound of clapping & shouts of “Well done Allan”. First thing was to give Nicole a huge hug & say thanks & second was to get my humongous medal from Dick Kearn. He shook my hand as he put the medal over my neck & congratulated, me on finishing with only having a weeks’ notice. I told him there & then to put my entry in for the next year as I wanted to see what I could do if I actually trained for the event. He just grinned. Total mileage 145: Time taken 34hrs 42mins: Position 10th.
So, that’s how to wing a 145miler, how would I describe the race? 145miles of pain, hope & even more pain.
Did I learn anything from this race? Yes, I learned loads from this race; the most valuable thing it taught me was the importance of having a good crew. Given that Nicole & I only had a week to put this together we didn’t end up with a good crew, we ended up with an AWESOME crew, they were fabulous. I couldn’t have asked for any more from them & I am truly in their debt. I know that without them this race would’ve been near impossible to finish given the lack of preparation time. I also learned the importance of a good crew Captain & Nicole absolutely shone in that Dept, she organised everything for me when I needed it, set out the crew timescale & just told me to turn up to the start as everything else was sorted out. She was my rock when I needed someone to talk to about my concerns & she made sure that she kept her promise to me in not letting me fail.
I made it to the finish with a body that was broken & in pieces, I’d suffered a stress fracture in my leg, been peeing blood, coughing up blood, suffered nosebleeds & more than likely had a mild case of sunstroke. As someone once told me, all I’d done was put one foot in front of the other until someone said stop, my crew had done all of the hard work in making sure that I got there, alive & maybe not so well but the alive bit was all that mattered.
Ogee’s Angels were: Ruth, Tess, Sarah, Paula, Mel, Rob & last but not least the captain Nicole
I was very lucky to have them & it showed in the following conversation I had with another racers crew who were buddy running him on the Sunday morning “Are you Allan?” Yes. “You’re the one with all the sexy chicks as your crew aren’t you?” Yes if you want to call them that. “You lucky bastard!!” Yes, yes I am.
So, how do you prepare yourself for a 145 mile race in the space of a week?