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1 Prospect Court
The Broadway
Farnham Common
Bucks SL2 3QQ
01753 647339
Unit 1, Prospect Court, The Broadway, Farnham Common, Bucks SL2 3QQ - Telephone: 01753 647339

The Grand Union Canal Ultra

The Grand Union Canal Ultra

Ryan takes on the classic 145mile, non-stop race

Having been a long distance runner for a few years and done numerous 35+ milers plus the London to Brighton & Comrades (both 55m), I decided to test my endurance in 2007 in Britain's longest & toughest non-stop run the Grand Union Canal Race (' It is 145 miles non-stop along the Grand Union Canal from Birmingham to Little Venice in London within the allotted time of 45 hours. This allows an average of over 18 minutes per mile, but that has to be continuously maintained for nearly two days!

At the start of the race with 145Miles to go (video still)

I probably hadn't done quite as much training as I felt I should have (do we ever?) but done sufficient. I was happy enough to be just under than over-trained.
Their advice on training for the event was to not run further than a marathon at any one time. This serves to avoid potential injuries or major fatigue doing 30+ milers. Obviously different training regimes for different people, but I subscribed to this which worked for me.

The suggestion was to do something like 15m per day every day for 6 days, then rest the 7th day. This sort of training builds endurance doing smaller, achievable distances continually than a couple of really long, individual sessions. I never quite managed this recommended 15m per day, but would typically do 12m, 10m, 8m, 16m, 12m. Obviously life gets in the way and its not always possible to follow a program like that exactly.

Occasionally I'd take a day and do 15m or so in the morning, eat, snooze, then another 15m or so in the afternoon/evening. This served well to get long runs in on a day with the rest in between not knackering me too much! I felt that bit fresher in the subsequent days. I'd do this perhaps once, maybe twice in a month. Getting through these days helped my mental state as well (more on this in another article of mine), ploughing some positive vibes into the depths of my mind to reach into when times get tough on race weekend.

The main thing was I avoided injury and also had a 4-week taper to arrive especially fresh at the start. I opted to have my own crew who would drive on ahead with supplies, initially 10-odd miles ahead. This gap then reduced to around 4-5 miles much later on.

78 runners started the race to a very low-key megaphone boop to get us underway. I listened to cheesy music on the mp3 player to keep spirits up. I ate and drank well for the first day.

The weather took a turn for the worse in late afternoon, starting to rain which didn't relent for the rest of my 32 hours remaining in the race! One of my worst moments in the race was reaching around 60m and realising I still had well over half the race to go! However, it was all about breaking the race up: Just get to that bridge Get to the crew Get to the next mile rather than thinking about the bigger picture. I'd told my crew before we started that I didn't ever want to hear how many more miles it was to go. I didn't want that at the forefront of my mind, even though I would have an idea I just didn't want to hear those numbers and for them to dominate my mind through the race.
Despite early blisters, damp shoes & socks (changed both of these periodically), darkening skies, sleepy eyes I was able to just keep on going, jogging with some walking & short stops with the crew. One of the crew became my buddy runner through the night, chatting away to me. No buddy runner allowed in the first half of the race. This helped take my mind off things.

I did a fair bit of walking through the night and a bit of jogging. Some runners aim to run mostly through the day, and then walk through the night. I had adopted a 25/5 from the off, walking for 5 minutes after 25 minutes of steady jogging. In hindsight I could perhaps have not quite done this as often as I sat with my crew for half an hour sometimes, then walked to get rid of any stiffness, thus gaining some rest time then. Having said that, on reaching 100m at Tring I felt relatively ok! I guess the pacing had been over-cautious, but rather that than feeling shattered with 45m still to go! I even had fleeting thoughts of going for a negative split, but again decided to just be cautious!!

I was eating some pre-made sandwiches early on, which I wasn't able to stomach later on, plus some heated baked beans (with and without the sausage variety) and some cold home-made risotto with sausages. Crew had a small gas stove with them, they made me regular cups of tea (with an extra sugar) which I really enjoyed supping. It was quite cold so they went down well, but I never finished an entire cup! Also had some Sports bars in-between.

On a lighter moment, my crew had (eventually!) managed to have a local pizza company deliver pizzas to us on the side of the canal! This took a fair bit of persuasion to say the least! I devoured half my pizza, then had some more at the next stop. This was also my little salute to Dean Karnazes, the American ultra runner who writes about eating pizzas while running in his Ultramarathon Man book, the book which had given me the belief to enter this race in the first place.

I was able to eat proper food as I almost always had a bit of a walk after leaving my stop to get the food down somewhat. Didn't eat loads to fill me up but enough to put some carbs in and to make me feel better about having something inside me other than gels!! Flat coke on the second day was also a very welcome intake of some sweet, sugary stuff. Sips of carb drinks at various stops also assisted in topping the carb levels up, but not drinking too much to be sick of the stuff.

One minor goal I set myself was to reach Comrades distance (around 55m) in under 12 hours. That's the cut off time for that race and it would be a moral victory for me as I would still have 90m to go! I achieved this with 10 seconds to go!

Spirits were lifted when Sunday morning broke, even though it was still raining and quite cold, but what I thought at the time was a foot injury was hampering my progress somewhat. Later learned this was in fact an infection that had probably entered through a blister (despite our best efforts to avoid this) and was settling itself into me. With a little under a double marathon to go at Tring and over 25 hours of running done, with the sore foot I pressed on. With all the rain the towpath was obviously not too easy to run on, but I guess with the slow pace it didn't make things too difficult from that perspective.

I hit a low point with just over a marathon to go when the foot started to become more painful. We strapped it up some more and I was convinced I was to walk the rest of the way in. I'd banked just about enough time to achieve this. However I was about to hook up with a friend and fellow ultra-runner to run a bit together as support. He convinced me to try run a bit. I was reluctant but conscious of not being too moody, despite feeling I had every right to be! This actually worked as it warmed me up a bit and gave me some confidence that I could still do some running.

Before the run I had concentrated on positive thinking, spending a lot of time putting these thoughts deep into the mind and it was moments like these I was drawing on them. At no point did I consider pulling out. It had instilled the belief in me that I can & will finish. Despite the foot flaring up to the point of having to walk the final 12 miles in pouring rain & freezing cold wind, I finished in 41h02. The final 12 miles took 5 hours of shuffling/hobbling, but again it was the mind taking over and willing me on. I'd read about runners in the past hallucinating and I was convinced this would not happen to me. It wasn't until I'd seen some fishermen, a turkey and a delivery boy on the last section that I realised I had been hallucinating! Interesting times!

I learned that the mind and body are amazing things; the mind was full of positives (I saw no reason why I wouldn't finish) and the body just coped! Over half the field had retired, probably due to the weather, which was a minor setback in the scheme of everything.  

I spent 3 days in hospital on antibiotics but didn't regret a single thing! For me this was just in the realms of an achievable target and it taught me, once again, that having a realistic and positive outlook, most things are attainable.
I've also got a shortened video of my race on YouTube

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