Saturday, 1 June 2013

Growing a Pair

Most of the people reading this already know the history and details of the Grand Union Canal Race organised by Dick Kearn. To get a flavour take a look at the rather old fashioned website at GUCR.CO.UK. This sums up the race perfectly. No flash gizmos for doing real time updates of the weather or participant progress during the race. Even the results page is rather out of date, much like the Loyal Snail support van. The one thing you do see is plenty of pictures of past participants, and they are not the soulless indistinguishable professional pictures you see on the big corporate marathon sites. These are not pictures that been picked for their photogenic qualities or artistic framing. These are real people who have taken part with their name and year on the picture.

This, you see, is a real race for real people, runners and crews alike.

The story of my decision to run it goes back to last year. Two DNFs at Ultrabalaton and Sparta, coupled with meeting a bunch of English people in Greece put the idea into my head. I needed a + 200 km finish in the bag as preparation for the Spartathlon

This was to be my first Ultra in the UK and that contributed to the novelty. After living and running on the continent for the last twelve years, being able to talk to the crew and spectators in my own language was refreshing.

I had trained by doing back to back runs in a 5 kg weighted jacket. I would do four or five 25 km runs over a weekend. Getting plus 100 km in over a weekend was going to stand me in good stead.

I had a marathon journey getting to the start from Sweden, where I am working. Train from Sweden to Denmark, plane from Denmark to London Stansted and then a cross country train journey to Birmingham. This was capped off by a trek from Birmingham New Street, on a wet Friday afternoon, only to find the Travelodge I was staying at was in a different street to the address on the booking form. Admittedly the next street, so not too far of a detour, but one none the less.

I headed off to the registration and hoped to see Phill Smith, but his phone was not working. He could text me but not call. The miserable sod was avoiding me, a thought reinforced by his SMS calling me a pissed head for wanted to have a pint. Instead I accompanied Paul Ali and Paul Stout to the local hostelry. A swift pint and a bowl of pasta from a cheeky tattooed pierced barmaid later, I left for a good night’s sleep.

I was panicked on waking as Alan Rumbles had posted a picture of the start on Facebook at 5:00 am. I thought I had missed it because I had confused the time difference from Europe. Alan had offered to give me a lift from London, but had been delayed by the traffic. He still made it to the start, driving through the night, showing true dedication as always.

After a breakfast of champions, consisting of a Pot Noodle and an apple, I headed to the start and was given a lift by Phill Smith and a friend, also called Phill. Perhaps he was not avoiding me after all. We promptly got us lost around the maze of one way streets that is Birmingham City Centre.

The race was started promptly at six by Dick, briefly mentioning me for being an idiot and congratulating Mimi Anderson for running in the other direction from London the day before.

As I started off loads of people streamed ahead and I had a quick chat about the latest goings on in the Archers with Peter Johnson and a lady whose name I forget. The route is quite convoluted at the start with lots of twists and turns, but as there is a whacking great canal to run beside it is hard to get lost.

Although eighty nine people started, we soon spread out and you could not see the person ahead or behind you. The directions from Dick were perfect and despite a course of one hundred and forty five miles, they fit neatly onto both sides of A4. I had the sheet laminated by my beloved and kept it in my sweaty hand all the way apart, from the times I forgot it at the Check Points and had to return for it.

My pacing plan was the opposite of James Elson’s, I had cunningly decided to go slow at the start, go slow in the middle and finish off by going slow. Thus I would finish with my stomach intact.

I had a boiled egg after an hour as my breakfast treat. After the first ten kilometres I was settled into a steady pace and caught up with Laurence Chownsmith and Martin Illot, both of whom I had met on our disastrous Sparta attempt last year. Just before Check Point Two we had a cappuccino and biscuit, much to the merriment of Alan Rumbles.

“This is a nonstop race! You don’t have time for tea.” He decried.
“It is cappuccino”
“Whatever
I need my Coffee
Cool headgear n'est pas?
We strolled into the checkpoint at 22 miles and I refilled my water bladder a couple of Elite electrolyte tabs and took a couple of gels to suck on. The other two had raced off, but I caught up we were soon trundling along down the locks towards Warwick. Thirty miles in and everything was cool, I was even interviewed on a mobile camera, while running, by a competitor from Denmark called Martin who was “documenting the race”

I remove my hat and convert my neckerchief to a sweatband. Jeremy Smallwood caught me checking my new look in the window of a canal boat. He made a suitably cutting remark. Rich coming from a man dressed in Union flag shorts.

Check Point Three and I met up with Rumbles, who gave me the load down on who was where, while I hungrily chomped down a multitude of sarnies and drank a couple of cups of tea. I left only to return shortly, causing abuse from Stouty. I had left my directions at the foot of a table.
I was just about to reach 60 km, the time I usually mentally fall apart. I have no idea while this always happens, it is definitely my bogey time. This time it wouldn't happen. I was focused, I had trained well, I was refuelling with GU gels and taking magnesium every hour. At this point I reached into my pack for another gel. Then I realised that I had run out and not reloaded from my support kit at the last Check Point. Never mind, I’ll drink some water, however, that too was empty. I was so focused on talking to Rumbles and Stouty at the last checkpoint that I had forgotten to reload and refill. Surely panic would set in. Not this time. I realised that I could bum some water from the next people I saw. After a couple more turns I met Tom Meldrum who was with his crew. Half a litre from him took me to Braunston, where I met a Witch who magically produced water from the ground. Shortly after I bought a White Chocolate Magnum and Yorkie bar to refuel. Not ideal but a treat as neither of these are sold where I live in Germany.

At Check Point Four, 53 miles in and labelled Weedon (Heart of England) on the map, which disappointingly was not a pub, I was greeted once more by Mr Rumbles. I told him of my supernatural encounter and he told me that was why I had paid a tenner for a British Waterways key. They open the water taps along the canal. I still think she was a Witch though. Racers were complaining of the heat, but Sparta it ain’t. James Adams got my bags and we refilled my backpack with water and gels and I was on my way.

I reached 92 km and had to go along an uncomfortable patch of very uneven ground. This is when the negativity really hit me. I was feeling very sorry for myself with no one to talk to. I could have called Chrissy, but had promised not to call her until 70 miles. I walked and my feet hurt a lot. I was really tempted to call her and give up. But then I remember at 70 miles there would be fresh clothes and have something to eat. I perked up and started shuffling again. This was not much better, so I focus my legs to run and weirdly the legs responded. They could still run, OK not fast, but fast for me. It was only a little more effort than a shuffle to do this. “TOP FUCKING BANANA.” I shouted out as the sun was setting. “I can run. I can actually run after 100 km ” I might actually make an ultra runner one day. I ran the last bit to Check Point Five with James Donnelly and David Hegarty who kept talking about Motor GP. I am not sure why they were obsessing about Motor bikes on an Ultra Run.

At 70 miles while James, Stouty and Rumbles sorted food for me, I got changed into night gear. I took my shoes and socks off knowing there were large blisters on my big toes and heels. I did not have my reading glasses with me, so I could not see them in all their glory. I knew they were there, but I was taking Mark Cockbain’s advice and ignoring them. Alan introduced me to Cockbain, it was good to meet him in the flesh, as he had been giving me advice for the past few weeks. He told me my blisters would keep me warm during the night. He was right. They were a real comfort in the cold night.

I set off as darkness fell and walked for a little, drinking Red Bull to keep me awake. Dave Hegarty went passed me like a bat out of hell. Even though I was stumbling like a drunk because of the tiredness, I decided to start running again and it worked. I was running in the night, slowly but definitely a run. I resolved to keep it up to the next stop thinking I could sit down and closed my eyes for a bit.
I ran into Check Point Six and was disappointed to find out none of the crew would volunteer to wake me after ten minutes. This really pissed me off. Then some annoying bloke, by the name of Henk, started talking drivel. I know I argued with him and almost everyone else there. Not sure what really got my goat but I was swearing like a trooper at all of them. I left without a sleep and stumbled into the darkness. I tried to sleep at 87 mile point outside the Three Locks pub. By that time the cold was getting to me and my legs would not stop shivering. My feet were toasty from the blisters but the coldness start creeping up my body, so I got up to keep warm.

As I crossed over the bridge, I told a man what a bunch of cunts the people at last Check Point were. He sympathized, mainly to shut me up and helped me wrap my space blanket around me. I felt almost instantly better and started to shuffle a bit quicker. At no point did I think it was odd that there was someone on a bridge, at three in the morning, in the freezing cold, in the middle of nowhere. I do not think he was a hallucination, but how would I know? The legs warmed up and moved faster, and then I got two pacers. Debbie Gibbins and I think the man from the bridge. I kept up with them and then overtook them...I was flying and rustling like a man in a big pile of leaves. The local wildlife must have been worried that autumn had come early.

Dawn broke and I over took Lindley Chambers and Nici from his crew. He said “I am going to hobble it in Rob.” Bearing in mind he still had fifty miles and twenty hours to go, it is a real achievement that he did. I started running again and then almost immediately tripped over. At least it gave Lindley a laugh.

I reached Check Point Seven and got my Pot Noodle breakfast, served to me by two time winner Rod Palmer and his caring wife. They had a large tent set up with deck chairs and a full breakfast menu. I wolfed down a bacon and HP sauce roll and more sugared tea. While I was refilling my bags and getting changed into day gear, I got chatting to the chap recording the runners times. He told me about Peter Johnson prodigious appetite and that he had almost missed the time-out.

I wondered out loud “Why no one has done this in under 24 hours? Surely a really good runner could do that?”

“Dunno mate, they mustn’t be good enough”
I didn't know I was talking to British National 24 hour runner, multiple GUCR victor and course record holder, Paddy Robbins, did I? Talk about putting your foot in it.

He reminded me to get going or I would be in the same situation as Johnson. Probably to make sure he didn't have to listen to any more of my inane musings. I can’t half talk bollocks with no sleep.

I cannot remember much of Sunday or the order it was in. I recall that it was very pleasant weather, me saying thank you to all the people who said well done. The canal is an amazing engineering achievement especially as it is two hundred years old. How did they shift all that earth with no machinery to speak of?

I saw Sue Albiston, Becky and Nici, (Lindley's crew) and they provided sausage rolls. I saw them twice in fact. They were a laugh both times food and giggles keeps you going.

I met some people at a pub. No idea where. I used the toilet in the pub and scrubbed getting a pint as the bar was full. It seemed strange crapping in a toilet instead of a bush. I felt really good and the fact my Garmin gave up the ghost hours ago was strangely liberating. I asked a few people the time now and then, to ensure the reality was the same as my perception. I do recall, during one short walking break, after the pub, a conversation that went like this.

Passer-by “What is your sponsored walk for?”
Me “Walk! It is a Bloody run!”
Passer-by “You don’t look like you are running to me”
Me “I have done over a hundred miles”
Passer-by “Is that far?”

There really is no answer to that.
At Check Point Eight I was warmly welcomed by Alan Rumbles and Henk who I had argued with the night before. They took the piss as I clambered gingerly over the lock gate. Henk wished out loud that I would fall in. I didn’t care, l had covered 120 miles and was invincible. While Alan fed and watered me, he told me he knew about the argument at the check point.

“Listen Rob, they were only having a laugh and you need a thicker skin. You should be happy they made you run on instead of getting timed out. You need to grow a pair or give up ultras. This is not a sport for primadonnas.”

I had realised this by now. I had grown a pair. I had turned the balloons in my shoes into friends and kept the pace up. At that moment I felt so good. I called Chrissy and told her I only had twenty five miles to go. Less than a marathon and marathons are for wimps. She asked me how long it would take me. My mind might have been strong but it still could not do maths. “I dunno I might be finish by ten.”

I was over taking people all the time now. I think I saw Lindley crew again about now but it as all blurry by Sunday afternoon.

I got a little worried just before the turning onto the Paddington arm and instead of just running; I kept faffing about asking people the way. I was getting confused between miles and kilometres and ended up calling Chrissy. She checked on the map and told me to keep going and I would be there in no time.

I reached the turn and ran as fast as I could to the Harborough Tavern. Fiona told me if I kept up the pace I had shown coming into the checkpoint I would move for 32nd to 30th place.

Well after a call to Chrissy to tell her I had only 13 miles to go I was off. I did that last 13 miles in less than three hours. Nothing to set the world alight, I agree, but not bad for me with 130 miles already in the bank. I even had time to chat to Katie Hayden and her husband. Katie was walking to the end and John was her husband running back and forth with encouragement and refreshments. I over took three people and ended up 29th.


The finish was great, a big sign, a hug from Dick and that enormous medal. Pam Storey was there and we had a nice little chat, while I had yet another sausage in a roll. Dick asked me if I enjoyed the race, which obviously I did. I think he was referring to my abusive wobble during the night. I know that was because I was not a good runner at that time. I am now. I have learnt so much. How to deal with blisters how to run when your legs are tired. How to laugh with people taking the piss out of you, instead of being offended.

Dick and the rest of the people crewing were great. A special thank you goes to Alan Rumbles for keeping me going. Stouty and James Adams were always there as well. Gemma Greenwood’s smiles. Cockbain’s mental tips. The Palmer’s breakfast. All the crews. I must not forget a chap recording runners who was always there sitting in his comfy chair with his clipboard. Oh and the guy who took me and Jany Tsai down through the people pipe. They were all fab. A little song for them. And a special one for Henk. He might think he is a dragon but I now think of him like this

All I had to do now was get back to Sweden in one piece. Oh and start building the wall for Sparta. It is a marathon next weekend goal time 3:30.