After crewing for Dan Park at last year’s race, I was determined to come back and run the Grand Union Canal Race myself. So when the ballot draw was an announced and I saw I had a place I was very excited, and determined to make this a key event for the year. The rest of my race plans for the year were structured to get me in shape to run well on the canal towpath.
However my training did not go to plan. In December I had to take a two week break brought on by plantar fasciitis, and all year has been a battle with my left foot and ankle. Some days it feels fine, but then the PF returns, or achilles pain flairs up. I ran Country to Capital in January, mostly to familiarise myself with the last part of the canal, and although my fitness wasn’t great the ankle held up. However when I tried to pick up the training the achilles flared up again.
So my training preparation looked like this:
Nothing like the consistent 250 mile months i’d been hoping for.
I reset my race goals, and mentally prepared for a 36 hour slog. Travelling up on Friday afternoon, gave me time to check into the Premier Inn and head over to race registration early. There were plenty of familiar faces, so I was soon chatting to a bunch of Spartathlon veterans, and heading to the pub for a meal and couple of beers.
I slept relatively well, and after sorting my kit, made my way to the start at 5:40. I had entered as a supported runner, so would have a crew. My children have been very keen to crew for me, so Sarah had agreed that she and the kids would crew during Saturday and Sunday, and I had a team from my running club lined up for the night shift. However they were not going to meet me until about 9:30 at Hatton Locks, so I was carrying enough food and water for the first 20 miles.
My plan was to run the first hour, and then walk 5 minutes, run 55 minutes and repeat… a lot. This would give plenty of time to eat during the walk breaks.
The 130 or so runners set off at 6 am on Saturday in beautiful conditions. I was running with Paul Beechey for a short while, but knew he would be going for the race win, so after the first couple of miles i dropped the pace a little to let him pull away and settled into a steady run with Alex Wherrity. He was also planning on a 55/5 so I ended up staying with Alex all the way to Tom o’the Woods where he met his crew.
It had started getting warm and humid very quickly but then a couple of rain showers at about 9am had freshened things up nicely and it was good conditions for running. The towpath was dry, and it wasn’t as hot as the forecasts had suggested.
After about 30 miles I could feel some discomfort in my ankle, but nothing serious. However I was visibly limping, as Russ Tullett pointed out when he saw me at one of the crew meeting points.
My support crew, Sarah, Anna and William, were meeting me every few miles, keeping me supplied with food and drink, so I didn’t need to carry much now and had ditched my race vest in favour of a small belt and hand held bottle. I obviously need to practice using the hand held though, as I nearly drowned myself. I struggled to get any water from it, so gripped firmly in two hands and squeezed. The jet of water hitting the back of my throat was enough to set off my gag reflex and bring me to a spluttering halt on the path.
40 miles in, and i started considering whether or not i would finish. My ankle was hurting more, but i decided to put my iPod on, and hope the music would distract me. It did, but not in the way i hoped. The damn device was stuck on repeat, so insisted on playing the same track over and over until I manually picked another track. Fortunately I found a 40 minute house music mix to listen to for a while. At Braunston Junction the instructions say to cross bridge 95 to RHS of canal, or cross at the double iron bridge just after. I chose the later option, but heard a shout from behind. It was Paul Ali ensuring I took the correct turn and didn’t end up on the Oxford branch running to Coventry. I was feeling a little sorry for myself at this point, so just waved from the bridge and let Paul go ahead.
I saw Paul go into a shop ahead of me and knew he was stopping for an ice cream. Sam and I had bought one for Dan here last year. I carried on, and found Sarah at the Admiral Nelson, where she had a cup of tea for me. The iPod frustration had distracted me from the ankle, so I said I would carry on to CP4, The Heart of England pub. If I was going to stop, I wanted to do it before the night crew set out. No point having them drive to Milton Keynes just so i could quit there.
On the next leg I caught up with Ian Thomas and walked a short section with him. I think Ian has had more injuries than me this year, so was struggling with fitness, but was in good spirits and determined to make it to the finish. My chat with him inspired me to keep going, and I banished any further thoughts of a DNF.
At about 19:30 I finally arrived at Navigation Bridge (70.5 miles done). This was only about 30 minutes behind my plan, so despite the problems I was still making good progress. My support crew was changing over here, so while I sat and ate some of the soup they had made for me, I said goodbye to the family. They were going to get dinner and check into a hotel for the night while the new team (Claire Hayhurst, Carol Tsang and Steve Barnfield) took over. After a few minutes rest, Steve and I set off. After eating, I wanted to walk the next mile, before breaking into a gentle run along the canal. The plan was to meet up every few miles to swap support runners, and keep eating and drinking.
We were soon heading into Milton Keynes, and this was a surprisingly nice section. There are no roundabouts on the canal! It was getting dark at this point, and my right leg (my good leg!?) was starting to hurt now, with pain at the front of the shin. At the next meeting point (Peartree Bridge), I sat down while Claire used some massage treatment to relieve the pain, I also switched into some warmer clothes for the night section and put on my head torch.
Bridge 99 is a major checkpoint at mile 85. Rod was here, with a badger that may have been dressed as James Adams, but people hallucinate in this race, so who knows. The volunteers had a can of freeze spray which they gave me, so after more treatment on the shin, I was soon off again.
The walk breaks were becoming longer and more frequent. In fact it would be fair to say i was walking with some run breaks, but I was enjoying the route and the company. There is quite a variety of wildlife on the canal. during the morning I’d seen duck, geese and swans all with their fluffy young. At night it was bats, frogs, hedgehogs and foxes.
The crew meeting point at 90 miles was good. The crew had parked in Tesco car park, right by the canal. The car was under a floodlit covered area, so the crew had a camp stove out for hot coffee which I drank while Claire once again pummeled my right shin.
Running along the canal is generally very easy, with a good tow path, and no real navigation required. However between 98 and 105 miles it was tough. There is a fork in the canal at Marsworth Junction. My notes said this was 1.5 miles after bridge 127. Claire and I ran passed the bridge, but 2 miles later had still not seen the junction. We walked on slowly looking in vain for the British Waterways office where we should bear right. After 2.5 miles, and starting to get a little concerned, we phoned Carol – no answer. We phoned Steve who eventually answered. I think we had woken them but it must have been 2am, so it wasn’t unreasonable for them to be having a powernap. I was carrying a small tracking beacon, so they were able to confirm that we were still on the red line representing the race route. We then deployed every navigationally challenged runners friend – Google Maps and followed the directions to the next main checkpoint. The Grand Junction Arms is at 100 miles, and there were at least 4 runners cocooned under blankets, who looked like they were out for the count. It felt a bit creepy and i didn’t want to hang around, so drank a quick cup of tea and left.
At the next lock gates we met up with Steve and Carol. Steve and I ran on for the next few miles. At this point the canal is cutting across a number of fields, and the tow path was just long wet grass. In places it was very narrow where the hedges were growing towards the canal. Not wanting to trip and fall in we slowed down and walked most of this.
I was surprised how light the sky was getting even at 03:45. It is a great feeling to run through the night and watch the sky lighten and the sun start to rise, and it normally inspires me to push on. However by now my right shin was really very sore.
I arrived at Boxmoor Bridge, Hemel Hempstead (mile 108.5) just after 6am, running with Carol. The crew had set up by the lock gates, and had a chair for me as well as food.
My shin was very painful, and my change in gait had caused a few blisters. With 37 miles still to go I decided to stop and fix my feet. Taking my shoes and socks off was very much a team effort. I couldn’t reach my feet well enough or see where the blisters were so my poor crew had to lance the blisters and tape my feet. Putting clean socks and shoes on was a serious challenge. I did plenty of howling while Carol and Claire tried to help me put a shoe on my right foot. The level of pain had definitely increased, and in the daylight, there was an obvious dark skin discoloration on my shin. This was getting concerning, but I was determined to get to the next checkpoint at Springwell Lock as Sarah and the children had arranged to meet me there, and take over support crew duties for the final push to the finish.
It was now Steve’s turn to run with me, so the two of us set off. Me hobbling, while Steve walked behind. We followed the tow path under the bridge, but only made it 50 metres beyond, before I stopped. I was used to pain in my left Achilles, but the pain in my right shin was far worse. It hurt like it was broken. “Can you break a leg just by running?”. We retreated back to the lock gates. I think everyone knew my race was over, but it still took some time to accept the idea. They propped my leg up, put ice packs on it, and made me more noodle soup. As I cooled down and started shivering I was wrapped in blankets, while we waited for Sarah and the children to come and fetch me. After an hour i called the RD to inform them i was dropping out, but safe and my crew woukd take me home.
I was practically carried to the car, and then driven home. After a shower, cooked breakfast and a couple of hours sleep, I was still in considerable pain, so I went to A&E for an X-ray. No fracture, but the doctor had no idea what the problem might be. I don’t think she entirely believed my explanation that I run 108 miles. At least they gave me some crutches to help me move.
At least I have a new personal record. 108 miles is my longest distance for a DNF. I’ve also learnt a lot from the experience.
Knowing the pain of failure, and that injury lurks just around the corner, will make my next race finish all the sweeter. I can’t wait for that feeling again. However first i need to let my body fully recover. Not until i’m injury free (no niggles or tightness) will i take on another long race. I think I need to run a few parkruns, maybe a local 10k or two before i put my body under so much stress again.
have had a place at the Lakeland 100. However this year, although i’ll go to Coniston, i’ll be on the sidelines, watching and cheering on the other runners.
A huge thank you to my crew for helping me make it so far.