Friday, 7 June 2013

GUCR: The Return (da da daaaa)

“Life is an experiment in which you may fail or succeed. Explore more, expect least.” -  Santosh Kalwar

Once upon a time...

...It finally hit me just how fast the last year had gone. Of course, I had spent most of that year blathering on about the Grand Union Canal Race to everyone and anyone who would listen. I hadn’t always liked canals and amusingly, there were still times that I found myself down a canal on the odd trail marathon and couldn’t wait to get that bit over with. But, the GUCR in its entirety is different. It lures you in. There is this promise of adventure coupled with extreme challenge. You have to push through this mental barrier at many mile markers along the way. Sure, 40 miles is a long way, you think, but it’s not in the GUCR, well, not in the initial stages. At 40 miles in, you still have a mere 105+ miles left to cover. I like that. I like the enormousness of it.

So, it came to be that I sort of got a bit hooked on this race. It’s become a bit special to me and I think that’s true of a lot of people I know who have had the pleasure to complete this adventure.

Okay, similar to last year, this has taken me ages to write down in words. Nothing has been quite coherent regarding this weekend almost two weeks ago. I have flashes of vivid memories about things that happened, things that were said, done, eaten, encountered, thought etc. But there are so many memories and emotions and thoughts that it would never be fully possible to write down it all and sum up everything perfectly. So, here goes an attempt to try and do some of that....

Let’s start at the beginning...

I had an awesome crew. This could sum up this section entirely and the rest of everything else to do with this race. I had an awesome crew. And really, that is what got me to the finish. The end. But, I will digress... It was Friday and I finished getting all my junk together. I had packed a massive suitcase which was packed with loads of separate bags and rucksacks; one had my race kit in, the other had warmer running stuff for the night sections, others had meds and lotions and potions and stuff and a few others had food and Coca Cola supplies. Sorted. All in all, I looked like I was moving house. But I never do pack light and I had convinced myself that everything would be needed. I think I was right. And packing everything in separate bags inside this main massive suitcase was a good strategy. Friday night, we were staying at Denzil’s house. He would take me and Jon to Birmingham at 4.30am on the Saturday morning and with all my different bags sorted, I could easily get at what I needed to take to his and what needed to be packed in our camper-crew-van.

So, ultimately, I found myself at Denzil's (via Jon’s) and then in the pub. A couple of pre-race Guinness’s were definitely called for and although I always feel a bit nervous, these definitely made me feel quite relaxed. Now, I don’t get to sleep well early. I’m a little bit nocturnal and I go to bed far too late almost all of the time. It doesn’t matter to me that I may need to get up at stupid o’clock in the morning. So, even though I knew I had to get up at 3ish to ensure that all my stuff was together and I was all organised for our 4ish-am exit / journey to Brum’, I still didn’t nod off to sleep until way after 12am. I felt like I had quite a good few hours sleep, however. And I was excited. Everything seemed very relaxed. Well, that is until the ‘Bra-gate’ debacle happened....

The Bra-gate incident...

So, last year, ‘OMM-gate’ happened. It was 2nd June 2012 and it was absolutely chucking it down with rain. I was cold, I was soaked. And I was about to run 145 miles. During the incident of 2012, I was saved by layering up and the versatility of the humble bin bag. The bin bag saved me. Poking some arm holes in the sides and a head hole though the top wasn’t the most fashion-forward look, but it was simple and waterproof and it did the trick brilliantly. Flash forward to the early hours of May 25th 2013 and I had no such worries about rain and waterproofs. Firstly, it wasn’t raining and the forecast was sunny. Secondly, I had long since found my trusty OMM waterproof jacket and I had no worries that it would serve me well if rain did strike. But wait, there was another problem. This was something unforeseen. I had packed my running kit that I would be wearing the previous day and sectioned everything off into the appropriate bags.

How had this happened? How had I missed this essential piece of kit? Yup. It was nowhere to be found. Somehow, to my horror and annoyance, I was missing my sports bra (da da daaaaa). Now, fortunately I don’t have very big, erm, boobs. This is a good thing running-wise and definitely very good when you don’t know where the hell your sports bra is. However, even so, the thought of running 145 miles in a conventional underwired bra is quite a painful concept. I imagined it digging in and rubbing and generally not being very comfortable. And I would have been right. It just wasn’t a good option to run 145 miles in this ordinary bra. So, what to do. Well, I ranted a bit on twitter and Facebook at 4am in the morning and hoped by some stroke of luck that it would turn up. Thankfully, it was found. In the end I ran approximately 26 miles in my ordinary bra and it wasn’t the most comfy thing ever. I was so happy that Sarah managed to find my sports one in my spare kit bag. I was able to cross a lock gate and hop into the back of Denzil's van to change. Everything was looking up again and it was just one less thing to worry about. The Bra-gate scandal had been resolved.

The First Bit...

We arrived at the start, which is always a good start ;-) and in plenty of time. I savour every moment of every race that I manage to make on time and with chill-out time to spare. These are special moments, because, left to my own devices, I am always late for pretty much everything. Therefore, although I was still mulling over the loss of my sports bra in my mind, I was actually pretty relaxed. And I hadn’t yet had my morning coffee, so I was utterly delighted to see that there were hot drinks being offered to runners out of the back of a van – and it was free! So, I fuelled my sleepy self up on coffee. Although, unlike last year, I was feeling pretty wide awake. It was all very bizarre, because I really hadn’t had too much sleep at all. I can recall how I felt at the start of 2012’s GUCR so vividly and I remember feeling absolutely knackered. In fact, I felt so exhausted right before last year’s race that I felt sleepier than I did at both the end of last year’s GUCR and this year’s run. Weird.

At the start line, there was a lot of déjà vu going on. I can’t believe a whole entire year went so quickly. I think I have already stated this, but it is pretty crazy. I think life is speeding up. Like last year, we walked up the road and round the corner to this posh hotel to use the bathroom facilities. I had major flashbacks of the nerves I felt before last year’s race at this point. Thankfully, it wasn’t raining cats and dogs like the same time last year, wooo! After the vital pre-race luxury loo visit, we headed back to the start. Here, I was so excited to see so many familiar faces. It was like a big reunion.

Lots of runner hugs and rambles were had, along with a lot of cheesy Facebook-worthy photos. The mood was happy and excitable and everyone was gearing up to go. I think they were anyway. I looked at my watch and there was only 10 mins to go until kick-off. Slowly, people started to filter through to the towpath where Dick was giving his pre-race speech. In fact, the last time I was stood at this bit of towpath wasn’t at last year’s GUCR at all – it was the week after when I went out and got quite tipsy in the neighbouring bars! So many memories from this bit of canal... I noticed that I lot of runners were facing the wrong way, which is easily done. Fortunately, for once, I was sure of my direction.

I do love the low key start of this race. Words are spoken. People listen nervously. And then, suddenly the race starts. Now the first bit of towpath is pretty narrow and not the prettiest. I’m no speedster and I definitely wasn’t entertaining the thought of going out fast anyway. So, I stood to the side whilst the speedy ones went in front and positioned myself near the back. 145 miles is a long way and I’m not sure I have any sort of formula for getting to that finish line as such. However, my instinct tells me to hold back and play it cool and block out how fast anyone else is going. This is a game between me, myself and I. My approach would probably be far more refined if I trained hard for these things and was really fit, but it is as it is for now and I don’t mind playing the long game.

Me and Jon settled into a nice comfortable pace and chatted away. I was feeling really relaxed and enjoying the cool but beautifully sunny morning. It was only the beginning, but things felt positive. Then, suddenly this relaxed atmosphere was shattered. Whilst running underneath a bridge, Jon took a painful fall when he hit his head on the low wall/ roof. It all happened so quickly and he really hit it with force.  Before I knew it, he was on the floor. It’s hard to know what to do or say when these things happen I guess. But, he was speaking and awake and after the initial shock he could tell me who he was, where he was and what silly race he was doing. At this point I definitely saw just how kind the running community can be.

Other runners eagerly provided assistance and asked if he was okay and handed over tissues for the cut that Jon had sustained to his head. Fortunately, everything turned out good and there were no more bridge-head-banging incidents. I think we both became hyper aware of bridges from that point onwards! Approaching the Mile 10 CP, we were pretty much at the back. I just kept telling myself not to worry. There is always a high drop-out rate and I would not be on that DNF list. Yet, there was no denying that the field had gone out pretty darn fast. We literally saw no other crews for maybe 30 miles/ maybe more. This was so different to 2012 when we frequently saw other crews along the way. It can be mentally hard when you just don’t see many other supporters out there for so long. Your head starts to play silly mind games with you and you start to question your game-plan.

Well, maybe I had a little game-plan; slow and steady. I was also very focused on re-fuelling often and making sure I took in enough electrolytes and fluid. It was shaping up to be a scorcher of a day and I didn’t want to get into any tricky territory of feeling or being sick. Still, my mind sounded alarm bells which went something like ‘Oooh no, where are all the other crews and runner gangs...where are all the friendly encouraging faces...? Wow, everyone else is so far ahead, so far ahead...and it’s only the beginning, why can’t I go faster...could I go faster?’ 

Then, fortunately for my sanity, the sane and calming part of my mind would chime in: ‘Hey, relax. There is a lonnng way to go and you’re doing fine. It’ll all change. It always changes. You know some of those people ahead, well, some of those will not finish. There’s plenty of time and you’re well within the cut-offs. Don’t panic. Focus.’ Okay, so maybe my thought processes were not quite so coherent and well scripted, but the conversations that my mind was having with itself went something like that, pretty much constantly, for maybe about the first 80 miles.

Onwards and onwards...

Time is weird during long ultras. Before you know it, hours have passed and you’ve reached a milestone and then another. Then, when you’re in pain, the miles suddenly become much longer and time slows down completely and every step seems to take an eternity. First milestone that stands out for me was getting the first marathon done. We met our crew at a lock and refuelled with cola and pringles. And there at this meeting point my amazing crew had found my sports bra! Hurrah! So, I shuffled over a lock gate, Denzil passed me the keys to his van and I hopped in the back to change. Relief. I was feeling in pretty good spirits. And it was time to move forwards again.

I found some of the next section quite difficult. I was starting to feel a bit frazzled by the sun and could feel my arms burning. I started to have some negative thoughts. I think we were at around 37 miles and I kept thinking about how we had run a small ultra, but had almost 110 miles left. In a few brief moments of negativity, I started to confront just how far that was and it felt so impossible. Of course, I knew it was possible, but I was on a downward dip on the rollercoaster. Fortunately, rollercoasters climb and twist all over the place. So do ultras. And moods.

Fooood, Foooooooood...

Pringles. Coca Cola. Pringles. Cheese Sandwiches. Traviss’s Crazy American Peanut Butter M&Ms. Kettle Crisps. Peanut M&Ms. Pringles. Coffee. Trail Mix. Salted Popcorn. Nutty 9Bar. Lots of Fizzy Electrolytes. Carrot Cake Cupcakes (Made by Sarah, these were amazing & so easy to eat). Chocolate Brownie. Fab Ice Lolly. Yummy Salty Chippy-Chips. Jelly. Orange. Banana.

My food strategy was very much the same as last year – eat small bits early and often. I didn’t want to feel sick and I’ve done that so much before in other ultras, where I haven’t fuelled properly and felt awfully nauseous.  It’s a vicious circle. If you don’t eat, you don’t finish. But, I had my sensible head on for this. It meant too much to me. And I’m stubborn. However, the task of eating regularly was made a little trickier by the sunny weather. I think it definitely supresses your appetite and makes you not want to eat too much. In times of struggle, pringles were my rescue food. They are so easy to eat and full of salt and calories = perfect! Oh, and we found a little canal-side shop selling ice lollies :-) this was such a great idea.

Sleepy sleepy darkness & wanting to curl up on a narrow boat pretty please...

“Everyone is a moon, and has a dark side which he never shows to anybody.” - Mark Twain

As darkness fell, thoughts of last year drifted into my head. Sure, I was sleepy, but at least it wasn’t raining. Last year I had to slap myself to keep myself awake, as my eyelids began to close and I shivered underneath the shelter of a bridge with a coffee in my hands. Things that stand out in my memory from this year’s darkness: 

1.) Approaching Navigation Inn (almost the half-way point). I have lots of memories of this section and I’ve run this section a number of times on various race routes over the years. The canal bends and bends and goes on and on at this point. You think you’re nearly at the bridge and then you’re round a corner and there isn’t anything there. Then, finally, just when you’re getting a bit fed up, you see it. You see the hustle and bustle up ahead and that really nice looking pub that you hope you might be able to go in one day and chill out with a pint. You see the orange lights and you’ve made it to another milestone in the race. 

2.) Heading towards Milton Keynes and nearing the late 70s – 80 mile mark, my head became muddled with negativity. I was so tired. I was struggling to keep awake. Seeing all of those cosy narrow boats became a sort of sleep deprived torture. I just wanted to snuggle down in the warmth. I needed to snap myself out of this mind-trap quickly. I sat myself down on a bench and gave myself a talking to. What was I looking forward to?Well, in that moment, I was longing for the daylight. I was longing for a huge hug from my boyfriend, George and I was excited about seeing him at the CP at Mile 133. Yep, that was still a long way off, but it was edging closer and I just had to stick this darkness out. Everything is better in the daylight and I knew I would begin to wake up when the sun came up. So, I told myself all of this as I sat on that bench, alone in the darkness. I downed a mini bottle of full-fat coke and I got out my mp3 player. I needed to stimulate my brain somehow. Listening to music really helped me to stay on track and alert during this sleepy tough section. I may even have done a little singing to myself... 

3.) The mist. There were these swirling clouds of foggy mist on the water. It was spooky, surreal and beautiful all at the same time. However, it was also incredibly difficult to see where you were going. If I’d have taken my head torch off of my head and aimed it more towards the ground I would have been able to see more easily, but I was in a stubborn and sleepy state and it seemed like too much effort for me to take it off my head. I just plodded on. I’m sure if I’d have fallen in the canal it would have actually woken me up. I didn’t fall in the canal by the way...

Woooo! Daylight... Phewww.

“The morning always has a way of creeping up on me and peeking in my bedroom windows. The sunrise is such a pervert.” - Jarod Kintz

I cannot and never can describe that feeling of making it through a tough night section and into the light. It is such a great feeling. It’s a new day and you’ve covered a big chunk of distance. Actually, the Sunday morning seemed pretty darn chilly. There was this harsh misty chill in the air and it seemed colder than it had done during the night section. But it made me run and move faster and it woke me up. And, I didn’t care too much about the chill. I was out of the darkness and that was the main thing.

Before I knew it, we were approaching 84ish least, I think that’s what this CP mileage was. I was so happy to see those orange lights in the distance, signalling this CP and the daylight had newly energised me. We arrived here at around 4.15am and the CP didn’t close until 7am. I was chuffed. Even though I had been mega slow throughout the night section, we had made up some time. And just as the sensible part of my mind had thought might happen, we started to come across other runners and crews and people we hadn’t seen for over 80 miles. Suddenly, slow and steady didn’t seem like such a bad thing.

Just pain. Ouch.

“Do you not see how necessary a world of pains and troubles is to school intelligence and make it a soul?” - John Keats

As time ticked away and we moved further forward and past that 100 mile marker, my feet really, really started to hurt. Really hurt. I mean, I think I have quite a good pain threshold, but I just don’t know. I guess it is difficult to measure. I’ve never been in hospital for anything and I guess I’m lucky in the many ways – I’ve never really had to confront serious pain. But, in these moments I was really getting up close and personal with pain. The uneven towpaths and gravel and stony tracks had tenderised my feet. I could feel every little bump and every little stone or bit of grit. I was literally clenching my teeth and making weird ‘breathing-through-the-pain’ faces. My feet were too far gone to be helped by any medication. All I could do for myself was keep putting one foot in front of the other in hope of getting this thing over with sooner rather than later. Then, just after 120 miles, I felt a sharp pain on the sole of my foot between my big toe and my second toe. This was in exactly the same place that I had gotten a blister on the Thames Path 100 miler in March. Sure enough, a rough patch of sharp gravel path had caused my blister to burst. Now, I’ve had blisters before, but this was incredibly painful. I sat down on a bench to examine my feet and momentarily relieve them. I also inspected my heels. I had a huge blister on each heel. Each blister was about the size of a 2 Pence coin. I rummaged around my waist pack for something sharp to burst them with. I don’t care that you're not supposed to burst them; they needed draining as the pressure was quite irritating due to their size. To my dismay I didn’t have anything sharp enough to burst them with and the skin on my heels was too thick. I’d need to wait until I caught up with my crew further down the canal. So, all I do was get up and carry on.

Fortunately, my crew weren’t that much further along and Sarah had some sterile needles. I was able to drain the blisters and patch up the most painful one on the sole of my foot. I was definitely ill-prepared for blistered feet and how to tape feet. I never tape my feet, because I rarely get blisters. On the GUCR 2012, I finished the race with one relatively small blister on my little toe and just very sore feet. Now in 2013 I had blisters to my heels and on the sole. I was blaming Thames Path. I think I’m a little right. The most painful blister was in exactly the same spot and the skin looked a bit aggravated, so I’m calling it a reoccurring blister.

The upsides of foot pain? Well, it certainly made me run faster. I set myself little goals and told myself to run to certain narrow boats or trees or bridges. In fact, I was able to run much more than I had a few hours previously. I had to get the job done. Walking had become too painful because the act of walking was putting too much pressure on the sole of my foot, with my foot being in more prolonged contact with the ground. When I ran, the mileage flew by ‘quickly’ and there was less pressure on my feet.

The End is Nigh...

“Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” -  Neil Gaiman

It’s sort of crazy isn’t it?! I think that sums up the level of my thoughts in the latter stages. Yet, I was now feeling more optimistic and actually pretty emotional. I was starting to feel myself getting all teary eyed. My mobile phone had run out of battery before the darkness had set in and I hadn’t had contact with George or the outside world since Saturday evening and it was now well into Sunday evening. It makes you feel a bit cut-off from everyone & like you're in this little bubble & at the same time there is so much going on that you just want to share with everyone. However, my crew had told me that my dad had been in contact via the ‘crew contact no. sheet’. 

It was reassuring to get well wishes from the outside world. At this point I was getting so emotional because I had thought about reaching CP Mile 133 during every tough bit I had encountered, especially during the night section. Getting to this point would mean I had made all the cut-offs and reached the last official CP and also, I’d get to have a huge hug off George. These thoughts had meant so much to me throughout the entirety of the race. Turning left at Bulls Bridge Junction and onto the Paddington arm of the canal we neared ever closer to this goal. It was nearing the last CP that I started to ‘see a few things’. I thought trees and bushes were people. Just the usual visions really. Then, finally I saw who I thought was George and I wasn’t imagining him! It was him and I was so relieved and happy.

Ultimately, the last bits were filled with super highs and tough lows. Highs included the kindness of strangers. Some men on a barge clapped me, which nearly brought me to tears. I heard a father tell his kids that ‘Next time you complain about going for a walk, these people have come all the way from Birmingham’. Some guys that were fishing had a nice chat with us and offered us some beer. It was all heart-warming stuff. Also, the hallucinations were quite entertaining...just faces and heads and people and things... Lows included the increasing foot pain. I had to keep stopping to itch and relieve my feet. Every mile was really dragging and the last 13 miles were the longest of my life. I kept thinking we were further ahead than we were and we weren’t. It seemed like we should only have 3 miles left, but there were 6 miles left to go. But eventually, persistent forward motion led me to familiar territory and I knew for certain that we only had a few miles left – I recognised the towpath from last year. And there was George again. And smiles and I was able to run. And somehow I had made it and was able to sprint across that finish line in 43:13:00

Any other thoughts?

Too many. I think too much, pretty much all of the time. I think the most important thing to mention is that my crew were just incredible. Sarah and Ross deserve a medal. They were sleep deprived and super organised and just awesome. I owe so much to them and can never repay them for their kindness and dedication. A huge congrats to Jon – I knew you could and would do it and I’m so happy that you did and got that well deserved mega-medal-bling.

I told myself in the last 10 miles of this that I wouldn’t want to do this next year. I’ve now completed the GUCR twice and I felt certain I wouldn’t be tempted to want to enter the ballot for next year’s race. But. That. Was. A. Lie. Do I want a triple finish? You betcha! In the meantime, I am having a bit of a GUCR comedown and I’m in serious need of some big adventure or grand plan. All suggestions welcomed...