Apologies in advance for excessive rambling, random thoughts and pictures of my manky feet...
Just when you think you have learnt all you can from this race, it teaches you something else. I wasn’t expecting that this year. I thought I had grown fairly comfortable in this race, in what it was and how it worked. But, I was wrong. I think I had grown confident after last year’s PB of 38 hours 25 mins. Well, not over-confident in an arrogant sense, that’s not really my style. However, I had developed an inner confidence and self-assurance. Still, I didn’t exactly feel in my comfort zone. I don’t really think you can ever get that comfy with the prospect of a 145 mile run. But, I would talk about this race with fondness to whoever happened to ask about it. Oh yes, Grand Union Canal, so many adventures to be had along this stretch of path.
Anyway, the long and short of it is that this year’s race kicked my bum – big time. I’ve written many blogs about GUCR over the years and I don’t want to be too repetitive, so here is a fragmented version of events:
The plan was for me to run my fastest GUCR and try my hardest to run as fast as I could for as long as I could. I was down as an unsupported runner, so I could access various refreshments and food at checkpoints along the route. However, I had roped my lovely boyfriend, Jonathan, into being my ‘moral support crew’ and he did a great job – he even walked out to the last checkpoint to meet me and run/walk/hobble the last bit of the race with me (I was the one hobbling). I also wanted to create new memories on this year’s race. Some of the plan was successful.
The night before
After fuelling up on Pizza Hut and doing a mad trolley dash around the supermarket, my lovely boyfriend drove us down to Birmingham and we stayed at a Jury’s Inn. Last year, I stayed at a Travelodge just a few doors down from here. However, the noise levels were immense. I knew I wouldn’t be sleeping for long, since I had to start running at 6am and had set my alarm for around 4ish-am, but I still wanted to dose a little. This hotel I booked was so much better. Maybe they have better noise insulation? Major happy points J J
Fast forward to... The night section
I always dread going through Milton Keynes, despite this bit of tow path being very runnable. However, there are cycle paths off to the left of the path and I always think there are going to be dodgy people lurking. The reality is that I think all of the dodgy people don’t tend to be hanging around this late into the night, fortunately. I always envisage scary ‘status dogs’ around these parts, but there was nothing during this night section. I didn’t see anyone. It actually got pretty lonely. And, even though I have run this race for the previous three years, I still kept worrying that I had gone wrong somewhere, that maybe I hadn’t crossed a particular bridge I was meant to. These were just paranoid mind games which were largely triggered by the fact that I hadn’t seen anyone for so long.
I was seemingly all alone and I had no idea of my position in the field. I knew I wasn’t near the front, obviously, as so many people had passed me much earlier in the race. However, I didn’t feel as though I was right at the back either. I just kept on going. A big bonus was that I felt really wide awake, which almost never happens during the night section. I normally always feel as though I’m about to dose off. Not this year, I felt really alert. However, I was really missing a buddy runner. I have pretty much always run these night sections with somebody else for company. It’s nice to have a bit of company to keep you sane and feeling normal. I missed that and felt slightly and sadly envious of the others runners I had seen ‘collect’ their buddy runners to continue on their night-time adventure.
Everything feels okay, but my feet are killing me...
I wasn’t lying. Or exaggerating. I got to the 100 mile checkpoint and everything really did feel okay, except for the feet. My legs felt much better than they had the week before whilst running Windermere marathon (probably due to not pounding the tarmac and hills) and I didn’t feel sleepy. These were major bonuses. But, the MAJOR downside of having painfully sore feet faaaaar outweighed the positives. It is the most frustrating thing to have so much will and want to move forward, but hardly be able to. I was limping along. I had invested in some ‘inov8 Ultra Race 290s’, having found it hard to navigate the range of HOKAs available and what I should be trying. The HOKA website also didn’t have any Women’s Size 8.5s in the ones I wanted/ thought I needed.
Now, I have suffered from sore feet quite regularly during longer ultras, so that isn’t something new (I have long but narrow and fairly fat-free feet...the fat seems to stick everywhere else!). And, I also don’t think it’s hugely abnormal either. You are going to hurt on a long ultra. It’s not ‘if’, but when. Of course you are, at least a little bit. It’s a long way in the car, so it’s even longer by foot. However, not only were my feet hot and itchy and throbbing, but I had huge blisters. Huge blisters. I tried not to drain the blisters for as long as possible, but it had to be done at around the 106 mile mark. Armed with a safety pin (not the most sanitary procedure, but had to be done), Germolene and plasters, I sat on a lock and squeezed. So thankful to my boyfriend for providing all of the above 'instruments'.
I don’t regularly get blisters. Yes, I’ve had a blister or two on this race before, but not to this extent. On my left foot, I had a huge blister on my big toe and on the upper sole, extending from a blister between my big toe and second toe. My little toes had become blisters in their own right. I also had blisters on the sides of both heels and another huge blister on the upper sole of my right foot and numerous sore spots. I’m sure there is something I did wrong. I definitely could have worn the shoes in more, but I’m not sure why this contributed to me getting blistering where I did. My socks had been good before and I always put body glide/ foot stuff on my feet before I put my socks on. I even wore gaiters this year, to prevent any sharp little stones getting into my shoes and then I have the worst year I have ever had with my feet.
Needless to say, the feet issue seriously got me down. I had gone from a comfortable pace to a hobble. I had built up comfortable little gaps between cut-offs and now I was struggling. I ended up doing about 2.5 miles per hour, approximately. It’s a good job I was hours ahead of the cut-offs earlier on, because if I hadn’t have been, there is no way I would have made it to Little Venice. Later on in the race I was running to the nearest narrow boat, whimpering, ‘airing me feet’, whimpering, hobbling, running to the next bridge, crying, trying to stay in the game. I was not going to not make it. No way were my feet beating me.
|Swelling: the immediate aftermath...|
The hardest to get to Checkpoint in the world ever... Also known as ‘The Unreachable’ and ‘Check Point that never gets any closer’
After leaving the 100mile checkpoint at 9ish-am, the sun was really beating down on us. It seemed like it as going to be a scorcher and it felt pretty warm for a while, but it eventually became a little overcast and rained a bit later on, thankfully. There is a twenty mile gap between two of the latter checkpoints, from mile 100 – 120. When you’re so far into such a long race, this seems unreachable and it’s such a slog to push through the eventual negativity that starts to creep in. The towpath also seemed to be quite ‘rocky’ along this section and the sharp stony paths started to really exasperate my foot niggles. Past experience has made me really dread this 20 mile stretch between checkpoints and I think this feeling gets worse each year. However, the feeling of reaching this 120 mile checkpoint is a great one – only about a marathon left once you make it here!
Beware of local wildlife...
At this time of year there are always swans and their signets dotted around the Grand Union Canal. There are also lots of geese and they are always really angry. There were a few incidents along the course of the race where Angry Swans decided to camp out with their babies in the middle of the tow path. There was one point in particular on the way to Braunston where it was really hard to make it past a group of swans at all, as the mother swan started to stretch out her neck and was getting a bit feisty with any runner that attempted to make it past. In the end, a nice man on a barge got out a stick and distracted them. This was the only way I made it past, because I’m a scaredy cat. Beware of swans.
This is the friendliest race ever
I don’t know where to start, because there were so many acts of kindness that I encountered. I will try to give some examples. I had just left The Navigation Inn at Cosgrove and was roughly 70 miles into the race and had just embarked on the night section. Suddenly the back of my head felt warm and my head torch started to power off. For some reason, the battery pack on my head torch had overheated and my head torch had packed up and I didn’t have a backup. A few moments later, fellow runner, Mike Blamires, was running past with his buddy runner and was so kind to lend me his head torch. Without this extremely awesome act of kindness, I wouldn’t have been able to see a thing and would have really struggled during the night section.
Grand Union is like one big crazy ultra-running family. Crews stop and ask if you need anything, people help each other out and everyone really gets into the spirit of things. I got offered yummy chocolate brownie, various snacks and I even got bought half a pint of Guinness at 120-ish miles in – a major boost.
The incredible kindness shown by all involved carried on into the early hours of Monday morning as I stumbled towards the finish line. Gosh, the finish line seemed so very far away this year. Normally, the paving slabs start to change underfoot and the landscape alters and you just know that you’re almost at Little Venice, but this year I continuously got confused and progress was so slow. Minutes turned into hours. Ultimately, in my last mile (and to think, I had convinced myself that the end was ‘just around the corner’) a little ‘search party’ consisting of checkpoint crew and legendary awesome runner-types wandered towards me to see me in safely, since I was now the only runner left out there. I have to say, in the last ten minutes of the race, the pain disappeared as it was replaced by the realisation that if I didn’t sprint and get a move on pronto, then I would run out of time and I would fail because the clock was almost up. So, arenaline replaced pain and I sprinted for all I was worth, because nothing else mattered right then. I legged it. In the end I finished 63rd in my slowest ever time of 44 hours 55 mins – I made it with five minutes to spare...
Thank you to everyone who helped me during this race. A huge thank you to Dick – thank you for doing such a wonderful job for all these years. You made this race. We all looked forward to seeing you and your beard at the finish line! I have so many happy memories.
What was meant to be my fastest GUCR to date quickly became my slowest and most painful. It’s impossible not to beat myself up about it a little. What could I have done differently to change the outcome? Ultimately, the outcome was that I finished my 4th consecutive race. But, to say it was disheartening looking at the list of finishers and realising how much slower I was than last year and everybody, is an understatement.
I know I was capable of better and yet, in that much pain, I wasn’t. The thing is, me and pain get confused with each other. I don’t know my limits because I have never truly experienced a serious injury or – touch wood – been in hospital for anything. I don’t know what real pain is, so maybe my feet weren’t the worst. All I know is that I stumbled onwards through clenched teeth, contorted facial expressions, swearing and tears. This wasn’t my brightest moment. And all I can think now is what is next? I will run far again. I didn’t fail, but I didn’t do my absolute best.