Fitness Magazine

Grand Union Canal Run - Supporting and Following the Best Race in the UK

By Jamesrichardadams @jamesradams

Friday evening Grand Union Canal Run - Supporting and following the best race in the UKJANY - Before she told me she hated me

Claire and I got the train up to Birmingham arriving at 4. I thought it would be a good idea to get there early so that there was less rushing and faffing in the evening so that we could get to bed early for an early start on Saturday. Claire was bouncing around with her usual nervous excitement as we annoyed the person sat opposite us with our inane running talk.

At 5 the registration opened at the central Travelodge in Brum where I got to meet some people who I had not seen for a while. Later many of us went to the Pub opposite and gorged on proper ultra running food such as mixed grills and fish and chips. I tried not to drink too much as it was a 5am start for me the next day.

I saw Rajeev Patel for the first time since Sparta last year, Neil Bryant, Paul Woodyat, Allan Rumbles, Pat Robbins, Stu Shipperly and met Lindley (who had only been told 2 weeks before he had a place and frantically pull together a support crew), Mike Blamires and Dino Ilaria. The music was too loud to have a proper ultra running conversation about blisters and defication but we shouted this stuff across the table nonetheless.


4.45AM - Annoyingly I woke up before my alarm as usual and I got up and shoved all my stuff into a bag. I was not running so did not have to go through the usual, coffee, shit, food, shit, get dressed, lube up, shit again (if you are lucky) then try to lube again. It was nice not to have to do all that.

5.30  -  We arrived at Gas Street where the runners had started to assemble. I met Drew and his friend Andy who was going to help we crew Drew for the first day. By help I mean do all of the driving, navigating and everything useful. I was just there to mix the occasional drink and say silly things to Drew. I saw lots of people I had not seen for a while and it would have been nice to catch up with everyone they were obviosuly distracted with the task ahead.

5.57 - Dick usually says some words before the start. Last year he mentioned a runner whose life was saved by the GUCR. He was running, had some problems and went to hospital. He was fine in that respect but he got scanned and had a tumour. If he had not gone to hospital then he may never have realised and it would have got a lot worse. Dick calls this his "one in the bank" in terms of people dying on the event. I loved the dry humor of it but Dick made a plea about pain killers. "Yes they take the pain but leave the killer". He warned against people taking too much. There have been a few stories recently about runners taking way too much and doing their kidneys in. Wise words.

6.00 - The start horn went and off went 92 starters, a record I think. Bruce Moore sprinted off into the lead as the other 91 casually formed a queue behind him. 

Grand Union Canal Run - Supporting and following the best race in the UK
Jim Binks6.20 - Andy and I started to queue outside a drive through McDonalds that was not open till 6.30. A sausage and egg McMuffin and coffee got us up nicely.

7.30 - We were first to meet Drew at 9.7 miles.Bruce was still in the lead and Martin was 2nd. Most of the known faster runners were still in the middle of the pack. We had made up his drinks and came out with a tub full of snacks and forgot to bring the cake he was after. He came through in a sensible time of around 1.40.I got to see most people as the race had not spread out too much yet. Martin Illiot (who casually started the race half an hour late with Lawrence last year) just stopped to have a chat. It was great to see him and we spoke about crossing America, a feat Martin has done solo. I waited for Rajeev to appear in his wonderfully bright clothing. He was full of life as always.

8.30 - Around 14 miles in we pitched up again and managed to forget the salt. We were learning one stop at a time how we were screwing up.

9.00 - We arrived at Hatton Locks, the 23 mile point and were not expecting to see Drew here till around 10am. Andy and I went for another coffee in a little canalside cafe and were amazed to see Bruce and Martin come through in not much more than 3 hours. Matt Giles (a previous winner) was 3rd and looking like he was serious about a good time.

Hatton was an official checkpoint and we pitched up a bit further down to get stuff ready for Drew. Claire Shelley's support team of Alex and Gemma were there too along with many others. I was part of the race organisation last year and was taking people's numbers down at this checkpoint and was amazed at how fast some people came to this point and how knackered they often looked. Last year it was raining quite heavily but this year the weather was perfect. Drew came through around the same time as Claire and the bulk of the runners. We managed to forget to tell Drew how far till be see him again.

SO, when crewing, always have cake, salt every 2 hours and know how far to the next meeting point so that you can tell your runner.

Jany came through looking like she was really enjoying the canal so far.

11.00 - Next to another pub on a bit of canal I did not recognize from before we stopped and I took some photos while we waited for Drew, still running near Claire. At this point we did not know who was leading anymore as they had already gone through. OUr plan was to now meet drew every 5 miles or so to refil his water, his weird blue energy drink and to keep him eating. So far so good. At 27.4 miles Drew had done more than a marathon. I was going to encourage him by saying this and that no one had ever run further than a marathon before but I forgot. I am really shit at crewing.

Grand Union Canal Run - Supporting and following the best race in the UK
Pat Robbins, 15 miles in and about 58329593th place as usual

Noonish - Stockton Bridge was at around 35 miles with a nice pub that was about to open. There were lots of crews here, including Matt, Pete, Brent and Marianna who were supporting Jany. We remembered the salt this time. Getting the hang of it.

1.20PM - At around 40 miles we witnessed our first ultra-strop. No one I knew but it was funny to watch. Won't mention any names but it involved an iPod (or lack of) and some throwing stuff around and swearing.

2.00PM - Braustone locks, 44 miles. This is a really lovely part of the canal, in fact the whole canal is nice except for the bits in London and Milton Keynes. There is a branch here that goes to Oxford and has to be avoided by the runners. Fortunately Claire and Drew did and there was no issue. The rest of us stopped in a nice canal boat cafe drinking coffee while it rained heavy for about 5 minutes. All of the meeting points given to us by the organisers were brilliant, each had a car park, usually a pub and was easy to find and get out onto the canal.

The great thing about this point is that there are mile markers from here on in counting up from zero. All you have to do is add 44 to them.

4.00  - Heart of England Checkpoint around 53 miles. Andy and I had now been joined by Drew's parents who gave us a little break so that we could go to the pub and get some lunch. I wasn't that hungry as I was working my way through Drew's stash of food. He makes great sandwiches and the Ginsters steak slice was good too. As this was a proper checkpoint I got to see who was leading. Matt Giles was just ahead of Craig Stewart (setting records in the Country to Capital and Thames Trot this year). Both had gone through in just under 9 hours. Martin Bacon and Bruce had dropped back to 3rd and 4th, Pat had now moved up to 9th. Drew and Claire came in around 10 hours.

5.00 - Gayton Junction 58 miles. We were now meeting Drew more regularly and here we met Steve Gordon who lived nearby. It was great to see him and we caught a sight of Vicky who was still leading and some others. Drew looked like he was suffering a little at this point, not sure why he had only been running for 11 hours.

5.30 - Blissworth Tunnel 62 miles. The canal goes underground and there is a 1.5 mile section of road for the runners to travel. This was where Andy was going to be leaving us and Drew's cousin Emma and her boyfriend Ant were taking over for the night shift. I was going to stick with Emma and Ant and run through the night with Drew. Both he and Claire arrived at 5.30, Drew pciked up a potato salad and was going to eat it while walking up the road. The rest of us bungled everything from one car to the other then caught Drew and a few others on the road on our way to the lovely town of Stoke Bruerne.

6.15 - Stoke Bruerne - 65 miles. Drew's Mum was telling me about the history of this place. It was the only canalside hospital and this is where all canal babies were born. It looks really pretty and there is a museum and a load of nice pubs here. On a good day it's really alive with people. From this point buddy runners are allowed and Fiona joined Claire to give Drew a break from the yapping :)

Grand Union Canal Run - Supporting and following the best race in the UK
44 miles in. Just at this number to 44. How hard can it be?7.30 Galleon Bridge 72 miles HALFWAY - As Claire was still near Drew the support crews were too. Gemma and Alex had recently been joined by Tim, Laura and James who were helping through the night. We were here quite a while and got to see more people, Neil Bryant was still looking really good. There was a major checkpoint at 70 miles at navigation bridge but support crews were not allowed to go there. Probably just as well as there are a lot of drop-outs there. Drew and Claire came through together again with about 13.30 hours on the clock, on track for a great time.

8.20 - Proud Perch - 76 miles. Rob Treadwell and his wife Jan had now joined Claire's team "Team Tigger" and Rob was going to run through the night with Claire. She had done well to recruit Rob with all his experience and amazing sub 30 time last year. It was still light and I was going to hold off until it was dark to run with Drew.

9.20 - Peartree Bridge - 80 miles I was getting calls from Jany's crew that she was really suffering. She was a little way back but got through Navigation Bridge with more than 2 hours to spare which was loads of time, another 27 hours to do the second half. I hoped she could just walk it off during the night and start again the next morning.

10.20 - Water Eaton - 84 miles. This is another official checkpoint and I got to see that Matt Giles was still in the lead by an hour and that Pat was in Third (Craig Second but flagging). It was hard to imagine even Pat catching up to Matt at this stage but we knew it was going to be an interesting one. Drew and Claire had worked their way up the rankings and I think were just outside the top 10 now.

One of the best things I heard this weekend was Pat's response when he was told at CP6 that he was over an hour behind. He said "well I'm inside my own record time". I comepletely does his own thing with this race, ignoring all others, starting in the middle of the pack and working his way through. He told me that if someone came and smashed the record he'd be the first to congratulate them. It's a shame he is not doing the Spartathlon this year as I'd really like to see what he could do there.

It was getting dark and this was where headtorches had to go on and I was going to start with Drew. He was suffering with a bad stomach now and slowing. Rob started with Claire and they ran off while Drew was reduced to a slower shuffle. That was the last time we saw Claire.

I ran behind Drew and let him set the pace he wanted to run. This was fine by me and I stayed a few meters back and talked crap. Though I had not run at all today I did feel tired as I had gotten up at 5 and did not sleep well the night before. I was really pleased to be running though and it would help me stay awake during the night.

This section of canal is the ugliest section outside of London. Winding through Milton Keynes there are a lot of large road bridges with the wonderful aroma of piss and shit, lots of industrial estates and drunks out on the canal. At around 11 the wheels started to come off quite badly. Drew was dry-retching and unable to move much because of his stomach. A few miles back I was getting texts that Jany too was struggling more with her stomach. I sent her a text of encouragement and got a reply "I hate you and I want to swap guts". That's the first time anyone has ever expressed interest in my guts. However hard I try.


Midnight - Before running into Leighton Buzzard, the 90 mile point I had a call from Jany that she had quit the race. It was really hard for me to find things to say to her, I tried to convince her to take half an hour and sleep in the car then get walking and see it through till the sun comes up and then decide. I think I almost had her, but then one of her crew came into the car and said they have phoned her in to say she wes pulling out. I was really gutted for her but on the phone it's hard to really tell how someone is. She seemed relieved that it was all over for her today which meant it was a good call.

Grand Union Canal Run - Supporting and following the best race in the UK
The Left Turn :)Just before Leighton Buzzard Drew stopped running and had to walk, his stomach was bad and the retching was worse. For the last few hours he had not been taking enough calories which was causing him to be quite wobbly. We got to 90 miles behind when we were expecting and Drew sat down for a while, cleaned his teeth and composed himself. It was going to be a long night for Drew.

The race had been won before by people walking the night, lots do this anyway. He maintained a good 4mph march for most of it but several times had to slow to a stroll or lie down. His heart rate was very high and he'd often feel like overcooking. He was sick several times but determined not to quit. Phil Smith caught up with us around here, waving a hand torch around like a light sabre. It was good to see him, he is a very good runner too and has done this race 3 times before.

I tried as best I could to take Drew's mind off it with inane drivel. He was making a lot of man-noises like GAAHHHH, ARRGGGHHH and BRRRRRRR. I remarked that as soon as a bloke is paired up he loses his right to make a noise for no reason whatsoever. If a man wants to make a noise then he should be able to without an inquisition which usually comes from any female in the room. "What's that about then? What's wrong? Are you still hungry? is this about my Mother?" I was encouraging Drew to make any noises he wanted to without having to explain himself and he was. GRRRRRRRRR.

We also concluded that celery is theoretically pointless, unless you are using it to clean your teeth or dip hummous into.

We went through another decent patch of doing about 4mph for a couple of miles but shortly before Tring and the 100 mile point he had to slow a fair bit. He was determined to get to Tring before 3 which he did.

2.40AM - Grand Junction Arms - 99.6 miles - Drew sat down for a little while. Claire was now an hour ahead and looking like she was overtaking a lot of the field. There are a lot of locks heading up to Tring and a turning that goes to Wendover if you are not careful. Phil Smith went down here briefly despite out protests that he was going the wrong way. This is another low point of the race, not quite 100 miles but most runners are exhausted. Add to this the complete darkness. Most people would have been up for 24 hours by now.

Ant and Emma were there to help Drew with some tea. I sat down too and inspected the list of the runners who has already gone through. I think there were only 12 of them.

The next 5 miles or more are pretty hard in the dark. The section between Tring and Berkhamstead is surrounded by trees and feels like running in a tunnel. It's easy to get hallucinations here or feel trapped. It reminded me of my post race hallucination in Canada which I told him about.

Grand Union Canal Run - Supporting and following the best race in the UK
Dick Kearn immediately regrets giving the priceless lamp to the worlds clumsiest runner

I was in the hotel the day after finishing a 300k 6 day race. I wasn't sleeping well and woke up and thought I was still in the race. I didn't panic but knew I was lost, it was pitch black and I had no idea where to go so I just waited. I sat on the end of the bed and thought "they must know I am out here and they will come and find me". A few moments passed and then I realised, "shit, I am only wearing pants". My heart stated to race as I realised the future embarrassment of being rescued from a race in the forest wearing only my pants. Perhaps they will only screen the story in Canada? No one at home needs to know. Then after a few more minutes after some light finally entered my eyes I realised that I had already finished the race and was in a hotel. I went back to sleep.

SO in the dark and claustrophobic surroundings of the canal near Tring I thought it could be much worse. We could just be in our pants.

There was another stop where I had a look at facebook to discover that Matt Giles had dropped from the race and Pat was now in the lead. Drew had jumped up a place. Not sure how much he appreciated that though.

4.30 - Berkhampstead - 103 miles. Day broke. Drew was at the stage where everything looks like a bed. Grass, benches, gardens, trees, walls and rubbish skips; they are all there just waiting to be slept on. There were a few moments during the night where he had to lie down. I was really tired too. We sat down again on a bench near Berkhampstead station where Drew asked for the car to be brought here so he could lie down in it.

It didn't occur to me right away how silly this request sounded. They were about 3 miles down the canal waiting. By the time they get here we could have walked halfway there. He agreed after a minute and got straight up and went again. I called Emma to ask whether she wanted to run with Drew for a while. I said it might be good to have a change of person and Emma was more likely to give him more kicks up the arse than I was. In reality I wanted her to take over because I was fucking exhausted.

It was around 108 miles when Emma took over. I had done about 24 miles in 7 hours with Drew. Ant and Emma were doing a great job of going to all the stops, about 3 miles apart. I got into the car with Ant and tried to sleep but did not manage more than a very small nap. A few miles down the road we stopped and waited, I was awake again but very tired still. I got to see some of the others out doing the race. I saw Richard Webster who I met last year in the UTMB and ran the Frostbite 50 with this year. He was looking in good spirits with Phil Howells and Ed Chapman supporting him. Phil Smith was plodding along as usual and Helen Smith was saying she was hating it (she loves hills and such). I bet she was loving it though. 

10.00 Springwell Locks - 120 miles Ant and I went ahead to Springwell Locks, the 120 mile point and were expecting Drew in about an hour. During this hour I got to see the same people again as well as Bob Brown who I'd met earlier in the year who won the Trans US race in 2004. Bob is such a nice and understated guy, you'd never know to talk to him about his achievements. He has won this race before, set some of the fastest times and done all sorts of things. He was out of practice at running for a few years he said, his longest run recently being 8 miles. He was still on for a great time though. He does not even look like a runner. I said to Drew that he looks like a guy who just decided to take up running one day and just threw on a load of stuff that might do the job. Tracksuit bottoms, shell jacket, shoes that did not even look like running shoes. Amazing. It was really good to see him.

Grand Union Canal Run - Supporting and following the best race in the UK

Drew did not spend long in Springwell Locks which I was really pleased with. I wanted to run with him again so started from here. Not much further in we heard reports that Pat had won the race in an astonishing 25.37, taking nearly an hour of his own record. There are so many people at this race who could earn the title "nicest guy in the world" and Pat is one of those. He waits at the finish for the others to complete their race and appears to be a completely normal guy in the pub before the race. His focus and complete disregard for what kind of race others are running makes him quite unique. He does not get panicked into running with the leaders from the start or breaking from his run walk strategy. 4 straight wins and course records speak for themselves.

 At Springwell we learned that Matt Giles had dropped out because his knee blew up. Respect to him for really having a pop at it. we also learned that the lead woman Vicky Skelton had dropped out, the exact reason was unclear. This meant that Claire Shelley was now in the lead, by hours and her crew were trying not to tell her this but it slipped out somehow. Claire was now on a mission to maintain that position, Helen was 2nd but quite a way behind. The only way she was going to catch her was in a helicopter.

Drew managed to get back into a run again, 1 minute running 1 walking which was great to see. His confidence improved as he could get through the miles faster. I used the mile markers to guage his speed, more than 4mph now. If we can keep that up we'd be done in no time. Bob and Richard were still close to us, it was good to chat to them. 

Noon - A few miles in there were reports that Claire was absolutely spanking it, getting faster in the last few miles and was going to arrive at the finish at around 30 hours, well inside my time. He crew were getting quite excited about it. At a few minutes past noon I got the call that she finished in 30 hours flat, doing the last 12 miles in 2 hours.

Claire has come a hell of a long way since I had to carry her off a mountain in the Lake District a year ago. Just like me she did this race only 16 months after doing her first ultra. She has not looked back at all and in that short time has run some incredibly difficult races and got some phenominal times. I think she has found her natural talent.

She is way too modest about it all, she would not tell anyone how she does unless you try to extract it. It was only because there were dozens of people at the finish line to report her amazing run that the rest of us even know about it. She will always understate her amazing talent at this and getting a win and an awesome time in the UK's most important ultra should give her the confidence that she can now have a go at world-beating. She is looking forward to the Spartathlon next year and I am certain she will smash it. I am bit worried given the way she bounces to the finish lines that the statue of Leonidas may spring into life and leg it when he sees her coming in for a kiss.

We were at Cowley Locks, the last "nice" part of the canal before it starts to look like a graveyard of rusty pipes and broken fences. About a mile later we saw a scooter in the canal. Shopping trolleys, footballs and rubbish bags are pretty normal here. Drew was continuing well with the run walking and we estimated getting to the finish at around 5. His parents had come out again to help and give Emma and Ant a little rest from the crewing.

2.00 PM - Hamborough Tavern - 133 miles - Just after the left turn onto the Paddington arm of the canal we approached the last checkpoint, or "Henk's Bridge" as I like to call it. Henk is full of wonderful support for runners who have just spent more than a day in constant motion. Support such as; "Where the hell have you been I was just about to close up and go home", "Nice Tits" (to the men) and the immortal line "Get the fuck out of my checkpoint". He does not let you stay there for long which is a great thing. I spend most of the weekend at last years GUCR with Henk and he is an amazing guy. Organises the Caesars Camp races and gets upset if he ends up accidentally making £10 more than he spends on the race.

Once you are past the left turn the rest feels like the home straight, it is afterall only a half marathon left. The remaining miles are discussed in terms of Sainsburys, there is one with about 6 miles to go and then another with only 2 miles to go.

3.30PM - Sainbury's Alperton - 139 miles - I am not sure how Drew recieved the comment when I said if I could just jog home from here in about 10 minutes. He was suffering a lot and the race had not gone how he'd hoped but we discussed how satisfying it is to finish something when everything seemed to go wrong. This was certainly my experience. The first time I did it everything was pretty much fine and then the second was a nightmare. My drink bladder split after 10 miles, I got dehydrated and heat exhaustion, half way I was falling asleep and had to sleep a couple of times. By 100 miles the chaffing I suffered made it look like I was giving birth. I suffered long and hard in that race and was well behind my times from the previous year. That made the finish so much more satisfying though.

4.30PM - Sainsburys Ladbrooke Grove - 143 miles - We were practically there now. This is a section I have run 100 times now, every step feels familiar and I was giving Drew the guided tour. I even knew all the Geese. I texted for everyonr to get out of the pub and come and cheer Drew in which they all did.

5.00PM and a bit - LIttle Venice 145 miles - It was done. Drew jogged into the finish as if not much had happened in the last 35 hours. ON completing the race Dick Kearn rewards you with a neck breaking medal. The organisation of this race is phenomenal, Dick manages to press gang his family and friends into giving up this weekend every year to drive vans, cook beans and dish out water along the canal. He must get excited when someone gets married in the family, possibly the first thing he would as them is "can you drive a van?" This race is unique, my favorite in the UK and I can't imagine ever spending the bank holiday weekend in May doing anything else.

Drew perked up a bit at the finish after a pint of Guinness and catching up with the others. Bob Brown, Phil Smith and Richard Webster were at the end having finished a bit before. We went to the pub to find Claire Shelley bouncing around like Flubber still. I think I looked more exhausted than anyone, nearly 2 days without sleep is not easy when you are not constantly running.

It was a previledge and a joy to crew for Drew and was pleased to see a runner to the end. There were a few times where a runner was getting ready to buddy run with someone and then their runner dropped out. I'm glad that didn't happen to us.

6.00 I managed to miss Martin Ilott, Stu Shiperly and Lawrence finish, they snuck in when I was in the pub and went home. I saw Anna Finn finish in under 36 which should give her the confidence she needs to do the Spartathlon in the same time next year.

7.00 I did a few shuttled from the pub to the finish hoping to see more and more do so. I was in contact with Allan who was running with Lindley Chambers who has only found out 2 weeks before he had a place. His knees were pretty shot and his ankle was in bits after falling down a hole before the 100 mile point but he was determined to finish and we all made our way out there to watch it happen. He looked pretty comfortable by the end.

The time seemed to pass so quickly, soon it was 11PM, dark but with a few runners still to arrive. The success rate this year was amazing, 53 out of the 92 starters ended up finishing, the highest ever. I think the growing popularity of the race is meaning the field is getting better.

11.00 PM - I walked back along the last few miles of the canal with the intention of meeting Rajeev who was looking at finishing in around 41 hours. On walking out there I saw possibly the best thing of the whole weekend, Jim Binks aged 67 was about to finish in under 40 hours. He went out hard at the start but hung on to do an amazing time. It's so inspiring to see that it is possible to do stuff like this when you are that age. Incredible.

A little after that I saw Mike Blaimes and someone else coming over the bridge with about 2 miles to go. It was great to see them and to know that it will all be over for them soon.

About 4 miles out I saw the spotlight in the distance and knew it was Rajeev. He was with Emily Gelder and he will crew for her in Badwater this year which I know she will smash. I was wide awake again talking to the two of them, Emily had been there since the 100 mile point. Rajeev is having a go at the Spartathlon this year and I am really looking forward to seeing him out there in Athens. Rajeev is an awesome guy, so enthusiatic about everyone and everything connected to running. I didn't realize till the week before that he knew Laurie who will crew me in the USA. Small world but a great world to be living on. I could have chatted to them for the rest of the race but with 1.5 miles to go I left the canal and headed home.


1.00 AM - Monday - There were still another 2 hours of the race to go but I felt like I had put in a reasonable shift. I'd been up for 44 hours, ran/walked 50 miles, got in and out of cars about 40 times, drank 6 pints, spoke about 20000 words of complete shit and was exhausted. I knew that my time here was done but I knew of the post canal blues that were to follow in the next days. It's like going home from the best holiday of your life. It may be another year till I see some of these people again and it is quite saddening. There are downsides to being part of this magnificent event.

And on that note I am torn as to how to be involved next year. I have decided that next year generally I am going to do a lot more crewing/marshalling for races than I have this year which means I'll probably race less myself. For the GUCR I am not sure. I'd love to crew again or support the race. Every time I come here though I think about little more than having another go at it. I might just have to put my name in the hat.


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