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Grand Union Canal Run - Ramblings

By Jamesrichardadams @jamesradams

Grand Union Canal Run - RamblingsThis is the elevation - in reverse

This started a few years ago as a short "Canal Survival Tips" article. That then became a general Ultra Running Tips article which has since been updated a few times. I think this race is still worthy of something itself and I want to share what I have picked up about it over the years.

This stuff is based on me running it quite well in 2008 when supported, running it a bit less well in 2009 without support and then helping with the race organisation in 2010. This year I am going to crew for a friend and looking forward to seeing it from yet another angle. I am really really looking forward to being there and meeting everyone.

Firstly I'd like to say that I consider this event the UK's premier long distance ultra. There are now lots and lots of great races in the UK and next year there is going to be an impressive 100 miler choice but I still regard this as the classic race to do. If you have been selected to race then you are very lucky and should remember this when you are competing.

Only a few weeks to go you should be getting really excited about doing this event. No doubt you'll constantly be asking yourself "have I done enough?" and "Am I ready?". Sure it helps to be a veteran of dozned of 100+ milers and to have run this race before as many of the field would have done, however you should not panic at all if you are not in this category. Any veteran of these distances will tell you at the start line that it's not so much about what you have done in the months and years beforehand but more about what you are prepared to do in the next 30-45 hours.

And if you have never run for a day and a half before then I really envy you. There is something quite magical about doing such a thing for the first time that you never forget. Enjoy it.

And I also suggest that you emerse yourself in videos and race reports of previous participants. Mat Dowles Video from 2006 was brilliant (with his own band doing the music, how cool is that?). Ryan Spencer put together a great vid of his 2008 finish. My video from 2009 are in 3 parts here.

My race reports from 2008 (where I ran quite well and supported) and 2009 (not so well and unsupported) are on the left hand side of this blog. A fantastic write up from John Tyszkiewicz is well worth reading too. Anna Finn finished in 2010 despite walking most of it die to injury. 

I've split this up into "How to run" and "How to crew", even though I have not crewed properly before there are a few things I think worth mentioning from a runners point of view.

How to Run

  • By now it's a bit late to panic about how many miles you have or have not done. I have known people to finish this on 30 mile training weeks whereas others will be on 100. There will be people who will finish who have run less miles in training than you. There will be people who DNF who have run more. Don't panic.
  • The first 10 people through Checkpoint 2 (22 miles) are rarely the first 10 to finish. In fact many of them don't finish at all. You can bet your life that a good dozen people will smash it from the start and end up in a bad way quite early. I was at the 22 mile point last year and some people looked wrecked already. It would have been fine if they were 22 miles into a marathon, thats how you should look with about half an hour of a race left. Not 22 miles into a 145 mile race though. The course is flat and fast and it's too easy to get carried away at the start. Avoid.
  • It's going to be a fast year this year. Without mentioning names there are a lot of runners capable of under 30 hours. 
  • Learn your pitch. If it's a good day there will be lots of life on the canal which is wonderful to see (though people may get in your way). People will ask you what you are doing and you have about 5 seconds to reply to them. Keep it brief. "I'm running from Birmingham to London because I'm an idiot" usually gets the point across.
  • It's a tough call as to whether road shoes or trail shoes are best here. I would suggest ignoring what type of shoes you have and picking the ones that are most comfortable.
  • Don't ignore early thirst. If you are thirsty just 2 miles in then drink. Don't wait 4 hours or for the sun to come up properly. I made this mistake in 2009.
  • If you really want mile markers then from Braunstone Lockes there are mile markers. Braunsone Locks is 44 miles in and then they start counting up from 0. So if you see a marker that says 39 miles then you are 39+44=83 miles in. Easy. Try performing those calculations after 100 miles, I guarantee you will at some point panic because you think you have just lost 10 miles.
  • Avoid sitting anywhere confortable. If you need to sit down or stretch then do it on the floor or ona wall rather than a comfy chair or in a car. 
  • Canal boats travel at 5mph, if you are overtaking them then you are going too fast :)
    Grand Union Canal Run - Ramblings
    Dunno why I put this picture in. Just seems to fit
  • Navigation Bridge is a notorious low point of the race. A combination of 70 miles in the legs, impending darkness, a comfy checkpoint and the reminder that you are not quite half way yet add to those nagging voices in your head that you should drop out. Those voices win here more than anywhere else in the race, lots of people drop here. Try not to stay here too long (or at all). If you have a support crew maybe get them to pitch up 3 miles further on and at least then you can say that you are over half way. UPDATE - Dick has said that support crews are not allowed here unless they are picking up a retiring runner. That is a blessing in disguise for the crewed runners.
  • There will be only around 6 hours of proper darkness where you need the head light. I try to avoid putting it on till the last minute and take it off as soon as the sky starts to light up. Consider one of the hand torches.
  • This race has been won by someone walking throughout the whole night. It has also been won by a run/walk strategy. You will inevitably slow down in the night so don't worry about it
  • Be NICE to your crew. Oddly it's not everyones dream to spend their bank holiday next to a canal. If you have people supporting you then you are very lucky to have such great friends. 
  • A non-exhaustive list of things you might want to take are; Bottles and spare bottles, sweet food, savoury food, painkillers and gel (I try not to use these anymore but it's good to have them as an option), spare shoes, spare socks, hats, buffs, lights (a flashing red light is useful if if you are running in front of your buddy - remember buddy runners should run behind and not act as pacers), toilet roll (carry at ALL times), food bags, pins, bin bags, roll mat (for stretch or lie down if required), flask (to carry hot water), British Waterways Key, Phone, maps, money and cards (there is not an awful lot to spend money on in this race though there is a Canal boat selling canal trinkets at around 40 miles and then there is the Canal Museum at around 63 miles in Stoke Bruerne, if you have time :)), suncream, lube, handwash (you'll forget which hand is your eating hand and which hand is your lue applying hand quite a lot), toothbrush/paste/flannel (your mouth will taste like a badgers arse after 100 miles of eating crap and this can be quite a morale boost), milkshakes and sources of protien, caffeine, 
  • Sometimes the miles will just go by slowly, or seem to not go by at all. In this case just focus on moving forward. Make each step count. The approach to Tring is mentally tough, you see signs of Tring quite a way out but then you have to ascend the locks and it seems to take an age to get to the checkpoint. Don't worry about it, just keep on moving forward.
  • The left turn after 132 miles at Bulls Bridge Junction is one of the most wonderful things you'll ever do
  • The pub at the end serves nice Guinness
  • And remember, no matter how bad it is just think about people you know who are at home watching TV. While you are stumbling your way through Milton Keynes, wanting to be sick and lie down to rest your burning legs. Think of those at home watching Eurovision or Pop Idols or similar drivel. Think of them as they stare at their screens, cosy in their living rooms at their idols "Jedward" and similar trash from our celebrity culture. Take comfort in the fact that they are suffering so much more than you are, they just don't know.

Grand Union Canal Run - Ramblings
When you are at your lowest just think how much worse it could be?

How to Crew/be crewed

  • Firstly, look after yourself. Many races like this end up with more crew members visiting the medics than runners. Keep warm, get some sleep, don't go hungry. You need to be on top form for your friend.
  • Let your runner tell you what they need NOT how to do it. The "how to do it" part is for the crew to sort out. The runner should be saying "I need drinks every X miles and change of clothes at Y miles and a buddy runner at Z miles". It's the crews job to translate that into road navigation and who drives etc.
  • The best instructions I have ever seed for a support crew were from Tim Welsh when he did Badwater last year. He wrote a list of instructions and reasurances to his crew to guide them through what was going to be an exhausting 2 days. Have a look at this on Tim's blog (scroll down a bit bit read the great race report) and consider drawing up your own "contract".
  • Remember firstly that at many stages the runner will not be like their usual selves. 
  • Try not to ask questions. Sounds silly but in a state of exhaustion being asked questions is torture. Seriously that's what they do in Guantanimo Bay, deprive inmates of sleep then batter them with questions. Even something as innocent as "how are you doing" can feel like an Emu pecking at your brain. Be careful with your language, say things like "Looking good, there is some coke or jaffa cakes here if you need", or " making really good time, let us know if you need anything", rather that "what do you want?", "How are you feeling" and "What is the capital of Assyria".
  • Expect the occasional silly request. Like a medium skinny latte at 2am in Leighton Buzzard, with soya milk. You may not be able to get exactly what they want but do the best to humour them, or lie.
  • Have an easy to carry box where all the food can be put and brought out to the canal at any time. My crew had a Sainsburys basket (I didn't ask how they got it) which worked well to bring me a selection of everything.
  • Carry a supply of hot water with you all the time in case they need a coffee/tea/pot noodle.
    Grand Union Canal Run - Ramblings
    These are the blisters to beat
  • Don't lie about how far they have gone/have to go. Try to avoid talking about it at all but if pressed then make sure you are accurate. 
  • Be generous to other runners if they need it. Things like water, sun-cream, coke, sweets, lube, bin bags, ice, coffee, batteries or anything like that.
  • Buddy running - You should know what type of runner you are crewing for. They may be the suffer in silence type, the vocal and frumpy type or perhaps they run like a suicidal lemming. I know people of all types (and good luck crewing for the last type). Each will need different approaches. Just let them do their own thing
  • Buddy runners are not allowed to "pace" ie run in front. They should be behind just making sure the runner is OK. Try to keep them moving, it's easy to find excuses to stop. Maybe carry a whip.

 Thats all I can think of for now and there is a load more stuff on the GUCR website. With less than 3 weeks to go all of your long running should have been done by now. You may have more spare time now that you are not running so much so I suggest you spend it reading about this awesome race and getting really really excited.

See you on the 28th

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