The longest day (or two)

This was always going to be a tough schedule: Grand Union Canal Race (GUCR) followed by Weald Challenge 50k, all in the same bank holiday weekend. At least I wasn’t crazy enough to try and run them both though. I’d just offered to crew at both.

I’d promised Dan Park I’d crew for him at GUCR, and when my wife decided she wanted to run the Weald Challenge (her first ultra), I knew I would have to be there to support her too.

I’m not a newbie at ultra marathon running, but I’m normally the sweaty bloke demanding a refilled soft flask or a decent coffee at 1am. I’ve volunteered at a few races, but crewing a runner and trying to help them achieve their goals would be a new experience. To fit both races into the weekend, I offered to crew for Dan from the start (6am on Saturday), but then head home some time overnight, so I’d arrive home on Sunday morning. Sarah would be collected at 6:30 am and get a lift to the start line while I fed the children breakfast, and I would then find her on the route later in the morning.

Saturday 02:45 and the alarm woke me. Ten minutes later and I was in the car and on my way to Birmingham. After arriving at Gas Street at 05:30 I phoned Dan and soon found him and Sam Robson (who was also crew for Dan), for a final briefing before the start.

We had a list of meeting points on the canal agreed with Dan and an ETA for the first few. We could then plan the next stops based on Dan’s speed. However our first stop was the Premier Inn near the start, to collect Dan’s kit. His hotel room looked like crystal meth house. A butane stove and kettle, white powder all over the floor, and a few bottles of suspicious green fluid in a bag. Fortunately there were no bodies in the bedroom, but I didn’t dare check the bathroom. Sam and I cleaned up as quick as we could and made our escape.

First stop was the Boat Inn, by the Catherine-de-Barnes bridge. We parked in the pub car park and made our way down to the tow path. We had soft flasks filled with water and tailwind, as well as a sandwich, banana and Dan’s cap which he’d left at the start.

By 11:30 it was starting to get warm. The early cloud had gone, but the morning rain meant the humidity was high. High humidity means your sweat doesn’t evaporate and cool you down as it should, and it was obvious that all the runners were starting to fell the heat. When we met Dan at mile 30 we agreed to go to the nearest shop and buy some more water and fruit and meet him at another Boat Inn, mile (35.9). People who name pubs have little imagination.

The pub is the opposite side of the river to the tow path, so we crossed by the bridge to wait. There is an official CP here for the unsupported runners, and we chatted with them as we waited. It was noticeably cooler under the bridge than in the sun, so we set up a chair for Dan in the shade. Sam and I were both starting to worry about how Dan was coping with the heat. He had slowed a lot and was now more than 2 hours behind schedule and only 30 minutes ahead of the cut-offs. We agreed not to mention cut offs just yet. Our hope was that once it cooled he would be able to pick up speed.

There was a music festival at the Admiral Nelson, , so we strolled downstream to the next lock gates. The Boat Shop was open, so Sam and I had a Cornetto each and refilled our water bottle. When Dan arrived we got him an ice cream. He was asking for more fruit, so after dropping me at he next pub on route, The New Inn, Sam went in search of a shop to see if he could get any grapes.

The Heart of England is at 53 miles, and there is a 19:30 cut off here. Dan’s pace seemed to have improved now the temperature had dropped, so as we waited there we were expecting him to come through about 45 minutes ahead of cut-off. Sure enough, he arrived on time, and barely paused. We thought at this point he might want a change of food, so promised to find a McDonalds and get some fries and milkshake.

Although it seemed as though we were in the middle of open countryside, within minutes we were in Northampton, and found a drive-thru McDs. Burgers and fries ordered we were dismayed to find their milkshake machine was broken. However we didn’t have time to find another McDs, but stopped at a petrol station for a Frijj shake, then off to the next stop.

There was a bench on the tow path opposite the Wharf Inn, so we sat down to eat our burgers and wait for Dan.

Next stop the Blisworth Tunnel. Runners have to leave the canal here and follow the road for a mile and a half. I put the kettle on for more coffee, for me as much as for Dan, while Sam ensured  the runners all knew the right way to go to rejoin the canal after the tunnel.

At the Navigation Inn, Zoe (Dan’s wife) joined us. It was dark now, so we could see runners from some way off as their head torches came along the path. Eventually we spotted the unmistakable glare of a Petzl Nao on full beam lighting the tow path on both sides of the canal. After a 15 minute power nap, Dan was on his way with Sam in tow as a buddy runner.


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Bryan joined our merry crew a couple of hours later, meeting us at the Black Horse. By now I was starting to feel like i was on a stag night pub crawl. I’d been to a dozen pubs, not slept in 24 hours, had a lot of laughs, some surreal conversations, and surely I was now hallucinating. Were there really zombie like creatures staggering along the tow path in Milton Keynes, under an orange moon?

I recognised the next runner – Mark Haynes. At this point, Mark was consistently ten minutes ahead of Dan, so the kettle went on and we were soon preparing a bowl of noodles as requested. This time we got our timing spot on. The noodles had time to soften and cool just enough before Dan arrived, took a seat and started eating. Crew perfection! However it was also 03:30, and it would take me two hours to drive home, so I had to pack up, transfer the crew kit to Zoe’s car and wish them luck.

My GUCR adventure was over, but Dan still had 65 miles to run. It would take him another 20 hours, but he made it.

My singing is appalling, but on the drive home, i sang along to every tune on the iPod and, with one stop for coffee, had a safe and uneventful journey down the M1 and round the M25. Sarah was eating her pre-race breakfast when I arrived home at 05:45. After a quick chat I wished her luck, asked the children to wake me at 08:00 and went to bed.

Sunday 07:15 and Anna and William woke me with a cup of tea. Not quite the 2 hours sleep I’d hoped for, but they were bored and wanted breakfast. I soon forgave them the early wake up call, as they enthusiastically cooked up a huge batch of pancakes for our breakfast.

The Weald Challenge is now in it’s third year, and I had run both the previous editions of the race. It’s a fantastic event, and good choice for a first ultra. Runner’s do not need a crew as the checkpoints are well stocked and between 4 and 7 miles apart. We made our way to King’s Standing car park in the heart of Ashdown Forest, and settled down to wait. Sarah was running with Tam, and her family were also waiting there, so we compared notes on where we thought they were and when they would arrive.

A few runner’s seemed to be struggling with their navigation, so we pointed them in the right direction. Although it was sunny there was also a breeze up on the forest, so it didn’t feel too hot. We saw Claire, another friend running the race, and then soon saw Sarah approaching, Anna rushed to buy an ice cream for her.We’d stopped here at the ice cream van on a recce run and it went down rather well.

After a short stop, Sarah and Tam were off, so the children had an ice cream too and then we left. Our next stop was another pub. Number 13 for the weekend, was the Blackboys Inn. This proved to be a very successful choice. Parked outside the pub where two huge steam traction engines – cue happy children.

I quickly found a table in the garden that was right by the road where the runners pass, and settled down to wait. The children meanwhile covered themselves in grease and soot as they chatted to the engine drivers.

The Blackboys Inn is very pleasant on a sunny afternoon. In previous races as I’ve run past I’ve looked in envy at the customers in the garden enjoying a pint or two. However i thought it best to limit myself to a single pint of shandy. Anything more and i’d be asleep on the grass. Based on Sarah’s time at King’s Standing I had worked out when to expect her. Sarah came through just a  few minutes behind schedule, but despite offers of water, and food, barely paused before heading off for the last 6 miles.

I managed to drag the children away from the traction engines and we set off in pursuit. I knew there were a couple of sections where we might see Sarah, so took the back lanes, and sure enough spotted her. She and Tam were still running strongly on the flat and downhill sections. We then went to finish to wait for there arrival.

Claire had just finished, so I chatted to her while we waited. Sarah and Tam finished in 7:56:37. There is an 8hr cut-off so they were the last official finishers but Stuart, the race director, kept the finish line open and awarded medals to all who made it round.

Things I learned for Crew

  1. Take a notebook and pencil. When you get to a meeting point, make a note of the race numbers and time of every runner you see. All too often we would see a runner and be convinced Dan was just a few minutes behind. In reality it took about 8 hrs before I’d memorised the names, numbers and order of runners preceding Dan. Paper and pencil would have made life much better.
  2. Take a funnel. Tailwind makes a horrible mess, and pouring into soft flasks will soak everything in sticky muck.
  3. Don’t make promises you can’t keep. We promised Dan a McDonalds milkshake at the next CP, but the milkshake machine was broken, so we couldn’t get one. Fortunately he was in a good mood at the time and didn’t throw us in the canal.
  4. Plan your own mealtimes… Or go hungry. If you don’t look after yourself you can’t look after your runner.
  5. It’s always hotter when you are running
  6. It’s always cold at 3am
  7. You’ll need a lot more water than you think. Know where you can refill from a tap, or where to buy more.
  8. Chasing runners around the countryside all day is exhausting. I know crew are in a car, and the runners are on foot, but both are going to be worn out at the finish.
  9. Tanzania ‘AAA’ coffee really hits the spot.
  10. Sliced bread is sometimes refereed to as ‘a spare sandwich’.

Things I learned for runners

  1. It is easy for crew to get lost, stuck in traffic, delayed etc. Don’t be completely dependent on the crew. Have enough water / food etc. so if they miss a meeting point you can cope.
  2. For a long race like GUCR, you need a large crew team, so they can work in shifts and get some rest.
  3. GUCR is not just a long flat run. Some of the scenery was fabulous. I thought this event might bore me as a runner. Now it’s tempting.

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