Monday, 30 July 2012

‘It's crazy... but other than that, it's kind of fun’...GUCR 145 miler, a huge mish-mashed ramble

Note: This blog has taken me so long to write & I’m still not happy with it. There are just too many emotions, too many feelings, too much which happened during this race for me to sum it all up in writing and narrow down into a ramble.  Some of what is written will be accurate, such as the flavour of my pot noodle or something along those lines, but for a lot of it, it really is so hard to sum up in words, so I guess you’ll just have to give this race a go yourself…. ;-)

"If you have to ask, you'll never understand"
I’m not sure when or how I decided that running/ walking /crawling (if I had to) 145 miles non-stop seemed like a good thing to do. I think it was during the Compton Downland Challenge 40 miler in 2010 when I got speaking to a man in his GUCR t-shirt. I think this convinced me that it was a great idea & I vowed that I would definitely have a go at entering when the time felt right. What we will do for a good bit of bling and a t-shirt eh…? ;-)

Funnily enough, for the last few years I have had this weird notion about the GUCR; I have wanted nothing more than to be a part of it and yet, at the same time ideas of being next to a canal for THAT long have filled me with dread. I have reasoned with myself that although I may find the canal network so damn frustrating that somehow this would equate to an even greater challenge for myself.  I have reassured those who have looked at me like I am mad by saying Oh, don’t worry, I doubt I’ll enjoy it…after all I’m next to a canal for 145 miles…I know I am going to find this tough, so don’t worry I KNOW…it’s a silly thing to want to do but the challenge would be amazing.’ So,  I have downplayed all enthusiasm for this event and hyped up the difficulties I may face, because I guess as some sort of defence mechanism I was setting myself up for failure…I liked letting people know  how bad I’d probably find it which equates to how bad I might do which equates to a good excuse strategy…right?

Yup, my psychology has been pretty messed up over this event. So why did I want to do it if I was dreading aspects of it, i.e. the canal network? After all, I’ve done plenty of marathons with canal sections in them and even take part in ULTRA race’s double 45 miler in January from Northampton to Tring 3 years in a row which covers a good bit of this GUCR route and I have to say, it’s not always exciting…I’ve done a lot more hillier events and off-road adventures and enjoyed parts of them much more than any flat surface. But something has always drawn me in about this one. When I entered the ballot I truly did hope my name got pulled out and yet I was terrified by the prospect that this would now be set in stone. I think it was one of the best decisions I have ever made entering the ballot. And I got in. And then I tried to get my head around the prospect of running 145 miles non-stop and I still don’t think I’ve got my head around that prospect and it’s almost two months after the actual race!

Where to begin?

I roped in two lovely and amazing fellow runners who had very kindly offered to be my support crew, Sarah and Jon Aston. They were absolutely amazing. I stayed at theirs in Telford the night before where I ate a lot of pizza and garlic bread and we were up at 3ish am on the Saturday morning to drive across to Birmingham for the 6am race start.  Now, the weeks leading up to the race had been immersed in sunshine. The British weather had been phenomenal and very sunny. As Sod’s Law would have it this was not the case on race weekend. In fact that weather couldn’t have been more different. It was pouring down. I was very nervous with the impending distance to run, but the rain was creating new tension and I didn’t like it.  Normally I have my very trusty OMM Kamleika jacket which never fails me in wet and windy conditions. I have worn it up in the hills, in horrendous conditions on the Yorkshire moors and basically, whenever it rains. The water just runs off it and it doesn’t take up much space when not needed. It’s a very useful piece of kit. So it obviously came as a HUGE annoyance when packing for the GUCR that I could not find it ANYWHERE. I literally turned the house upside down and I couldn’t find it anywhere.  Just my luck. 

I was so angry and I kept looking but I never did find it in time. Friends tried to reassure me and get rid of my nerves by telling me that the weather would likely be fine and dry. This was far from the case. In the end I did my best with borrowed windbreaker-style jackets and extra layers from my crew. In the end everyone was soaked through…but obviously it would have been better with my OMM. I think the lack of kit definitely affected my mindset from the beginning. It made me more nervous and looking around at the fellow runners on the start line I felt like a child on a school trip who had rubbish clothes and the other kids were all in the designer labels. The dropout rate for this event is high and the last thing I wanted was for the weather conditions and my lack of cover to contribute to a DNF. I am still carrying with me the emotional scars of the Thames Path 100 which I guess was on similar terrain, wherein the weather suddenly turned and became icy and windy and torrential. During the Thames Path I had my good kit and still the race got pulled 5 miles from the finish and I failed to reach that finish line, with so many runners out there suffering from the elements. I didn’t want a similar scenario during this event. I guess I just forced myself to push it to the back of my mind. There was nothing I could do about it. Time to focus. And before I knew it, Dick Kearn the race director had done his speech and we were off. It all seemed so surreal.

The First Bit

“There are two mistakes one can make along the road to truth...not going all the way, and not starting.”

The first 10 miles went by pretty fast. I was chatting to another runner for most of that bit and it was really nice to meet some new people. I barely noticed the canal. I needn’t have worried; there was plenty of time to take it in later on… Before I knew it I had come upon Jon and Sarah and their crewing skills were excellent from the outset. They had a bag of goodies with them and I took a few handfuls of salted popcorn. As it turns out, salted popcorn was a really good fuel choice and very easy to eat. I needed to make sure I was eating early. After all, I had awoken at 3ish am and eaten breakfast early. I thoroughly believe that eating often and early was a really excellent decision. Talking of eating and refuelling: throughout the day and the next day there were two really nice guys called Stuart and Jim I believe who would meet their crew and pull up a chair and take time to eat and then bolt off again. It seemed like a most excellent strategy and always made me giggle because they really took it in their stride and had a little picnic and they were really friendly too.

Clocking up the miles

“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, old Time is still a-flying. And this same flower that smiles today, tomorrow will be dying.” – Robert Herrick

Although it doesn’t always seem like it at the time…well mainly it doesn’t seem like time is going all that fast in the latter stages when you sometimes want it to end faster because of any discomfort you may be feeling, BUT time does indeed fly by. Before I knew it I had lopped off the 45 miles added to that 100 miles and had a mere 100 miles to go. Now, that sounds like a much rounder number! Actually this is a very scary realisation. It’s odd when you get to the 45 mile mark, because this is a reasonably challenging ultra distance normally, I guess, but not in this instance. It is still the beginning and who knows what will transpire later on? Still, I was comforted by the prospect of having company to run with after the 65ish mile mark.

Feeeeed me Seymour

“He who goes to bed hungry dreams of pancakes.

In no particular order, the following things were eaten or sort of eaten/ drunk: Salted popcorn, trail mix, Bevita breakfast biscuits, monster munch, chunky chicken soup, noodles, pot noodle, coffee, coca cola, cheese and ham sandwiches, MacDonald’s cheese burger and fries, tuna sandwich, more monster munch, sausage roll, more coke, chocolate bar….I think this is the majority of the feast that was eaten, but I bet there’s some that was left out. Anyway, it definitely helped and I never once felt ill like I have before on ultras where I haven’t fuelled properly…so there you go; a successful experiment indeed. Just treat it like a huge eating contest, ‘Runner vs. Food’ and all will be well.


"Right now I'm having amnesia and déjà vu at the same time." – Steven Wright

I was quite familiar with some parts of the route, mainly owing to the fact that I have done Ultra Race’s double 45 miler which takes place each January for 3 years in a row. I guess I don’t really dislike canals. I am really grateful for being familiar with parts such as the bit by Blisworth Tunnel. At this point you have to head onto the road, as the towpath disappears and so you head up though a forested track and up onto the road. It can seem like quite a long time on the road and it is over a mile I believe; so you can get a bit paranoid that you’re going off-track. Fortunately, I knew this bit well and my paranoia was non-existent. It was nice to be on a slightly undulating bit of road for a bit, it breaks the monotony of the canal up nicely. It was comforting. And yet the experience of covering this section this time around was so different to the last time I had been there. Last time, the race mileage was nearly over, this time there was a long way to go.

Sleepy eyelids, dreaming awake & getting drenched

"Tonight I'm tangled in my blanket of clouds, dreaming aloud" – Foo Fighters

On the Saturday night, the rain got so bad. It was really bad. I don’t mind rain, but the implications of such torrential freezing rain whilst having to stay awake and responsive and active for so long whilst getting absolutely drenched are not good. Your mind doesn’t want to go there and even worse than that, you don’t want to have to go there literally. It is a frightening and annoying thought that a little bit of water falling from the sky might derail a dream that you have had for so long. It was certainly made all the worse by the fact that I was minus my very treasured waterproof OMM jacket. It made me cold and sleepy and forgetting the rain for a moment, the darkness and magnitude of the distance that had to be covered made me downright sleepy. My eyes began to lull and my eyelids got heavy. I was doing my lazy, stumbling, falling-asleep run. I literally had to screw my face up, talk to myself, and jolt myself back to reality and to the here and now.

I had to stay awake. But it was so miserable and the temperature had dropped so much. I saw so many people around me being affected by this darn weather. Some looked particularly miserable and they were far more kitted out than me and it worried me somewhat. But you have to push these fears to the back of your head and keep moving forwards. Most importantly, you have to keep moving. I think this was some peoples undoing during the night section. It was just so chilly and the weather was so awful, it was so tempting and easier to slow down, but you had no choice but to keep up as good of a pace as you could manage to ward off the weather and the sleepiness. It was particularly nice to sit under a bridge out of the rain for a little bit and have a nice cup of hot coffee; a massive thank you to my crew. It gave me some much needed warmth and caffeine kick, as well as a little mental boost. 

Into the light

"Gotta kick at the darkness 'til it bleeds daylight." – Bare Naked Ladies

As morning breaks, it brings with it the most optimistic feeling in the world. It’s great to make it through the night and into the daylight. You can begin to look forward to the day ahead and ultimately – although still a long way off – that finish line. In the morning I had a cup of noodles, another hot drink and some nibbles. We had also managed to run through Milton Keynes during the middle of the night, which was a really good thing for me. Normally, when I have run this bit of the canal, it attracts quite a lot of dog walkers, but because it was the middle of the night, not one was about. As such, I was able to get on with the task at hand without feeling my usual anxious self around dogs. Phew! We ran quite well during this night section if I do say so myself. Earlier in the race I had talked to other runners about how they intended to tackle bits and a lot said they would run as much as possible in the daylight and then just walk a lot and wind down during the night section. However, because the weather was so horrendous, this was a bad idea. You really needed to keep as much body warmth as possible and those who slowed down too much during the night section really seemed to suffer. I was really glad of my crew.

I think during this event I learnt the true meaning of what it feels like to do whatever it takes to make it to that finish line. I would have done anything. I mean, I donned a bin bag and it wasn’t for the fashion statement haha ;-)

Much later on and nearing the end

'Sometimes we need to stop analyzing the past, stop planning the future, stop figuring out precisely how we feel, stop deciding exactly what we want, and just see what happens’.

I had slowed down considerably because my feet were killing me. They had been pretty wet for over 40 hours and pretty shrivelled. All this slow moving was really eating up my time and I don’t know how but soon enough I was worrying about making that 45 hour cut-off. Anything really can go wrong during these things, but there was no way I had battled through everything I had to not make that finish line. From somewhere I managed to leggit ad I really picked up the pace. I was pretty surprised with myself. It was so exciting running the last bit. There were bigger, modern buildings starting to emerge and there was a great anticipation and then in the distance I saw the lights.

There were orange lights set up and I just knew they were ours; there had been identical lights at one of the check points the previous night. Nothing else mattered and I sprinted towards them and past the 3 other last runners who were also on the home straight. I didn’t barge past them, but I definitely wanted to cross that finish line with a bit of a jog-on. And after just over 44 hours, I was done. It was all over and suddenly the tiredness was gone. It did come back a few hours later, but I just couldn’t believe I finished it. And that is precisely one of the things I love about ultra running: accomplishing something that seems downright crazy on paper and all on your own two feet. You can’t buy the feeling of satisfaction, it can only be earned, but it sure helps to have a little help from your friends. I cannot thank my lovely crew Sarah and Jon Aston enough and I don’t think I ever will be able to tell them just how much they helped me.

Going into this event there is no doubt that I could have trained more, being the disorganised person that I am. However, this time around I just wanted to be amongst the finishers. And there will be a next time, because I absolutely loved this event. The funny thing is I never thought I truly would thoroughly enjoy it. After all, 145 miles is bloody hard work. But I really loved it. My impulsive decision to enter this wonderful event paid off and I can’t wait for the next adventure.

A week later I went back to Brum and the start line. This time was more of a relaxing night out...tWas a surreal experience....

"To those who know, no explanation is necessary.... To those who do not know, no explanation will suffice."

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