Friday 29 May 2015

A long run deserves a long blog post

I still can’t believe I did it – it’s surreal but wonderful and I am very proud of myself for completing the 145 miles of the Grand Union Canal Race. As an unsupported runner (although I had some friends and family pop up around the course to cheer me on) and without any pacers (or buddies as they’re called for this event), I made it to the finish line in 37 hours 21 minutes, as 3rd Lady, and it was epic.

Such a momentous race requires a momentous blog post. I want to capture as much as I can about the weekend – it was incredibly special for me but already I can feel every mile merging into one! However, here's the short version:-

GUCR was brilliant the first day. The route covers some beautiful countryside, the canal is an incredibly interesting place, and everyone I met was lovely. The night was tough, the second day even tougher and I suffered horrendously with blisters and chafing that became quite debilitating - I walked the last 12 miles incredibly slowly and sacrificed a much better time than I could have achieved had I sucked up the pain! I hugely appreciated the support of friends and family out on the course, especially from Steph and Keith who were there a few times on both Saturday and Sunday. The Springlock CP crew saved my race by draining my blisters and taping my feet and looking after me when I fainted. I’m blown away by the online support that I received but sadly didn’t know that everyone was tracking me until after I’d finished. Crossing the finish line was the most amazing feeling of all. Now I think that I can do absolutely anything and my medal is now one of the most valuable things I own!

Thank you so much to all of you who sponsored me for the run...I've raised over £1,400 for the Saint Francis Hospice which is fantastic! I do hope that donations will keep coming in though, as I take on new challenges over the rest of the year

I don’t expect anyone to read the rest of this post, it's for my own memories as much as anything, but here is the long version:-

Although I’ve been counting down to the GUCR for the last few months, and reading, and rereading the incredibly detailed instructions, advice and route maps that Dick Kearn, the long-standing, famous and dearly loved Race Director for GUCR had painstakingly created for all of his runners, it wasn’t until I'd finished TP100 three weeks before that I started to feel that GUCR was actually going to happen. I started writing lists (I love a good list) and reading blogs about other people’s experiences, and looking at the maps in much more detail. Then I’d put the maps away again quickly because they were quite scary. 145 miles on a map looks a very, very long way!

In the week before, I saw photos from fellow runners laying out their kit and packing their bags, preparing themselves for what was to come. I was being very proactive at writing even more lists, and created a pace plan, but hadn’t actually managed to get anything useful sorted out, although in my defense I was taking a Beet It shot every day, trying to get a week of early nights, and was on a caffeine ban too.

However, after some last minute panic shopping for various bits of kit (some I used and some I didn’t) by Thursday night I had everything I thought I would need, ready to be packed up on Friday morning, before I caught the train that afternoon.

All went well, and I arrived in Birmingham in good time. Having looked on the map, I’d decided it wasn’t too far, so would walk from the train station to the hotel where race registration was held. I didn’t realise how much further it would seem carrying my two drop bags. I eventually made it though, having had a number of stops to rest my weary arms. I walked into the reception to see lots of slim, athletic, ultra-runner type men standing around…while I was hot, sweaty, breathing heavily and looking like a complete fraud. I’m sure everyone must have assumed I was crew, there’s no way this unathletic, overweight, dumpy woman was going to attempt this most arduous of events.

But hey ho, I tried to push those feelings right to the back of my mind, and smiled and chatted as I picked up my British Waterways key, and the race kit that I’d ordered. I packed them away quickly without daring to look at them, for fear of tempting fate, before briefly popping into the pub opposite where more runners were congregating, before heading off to the hotel I was staying at. Although it was another relatively short walk, I took a cab this time.

I was booked into the Premier Inn at Waterloo Street, and it was cheap (£35) but very comfortable and had everything I needed. I unpacked my bags, laying out all my kit to make sure I had everything I needed. For the first race in I don’t know how long, I actually had remembered it all! I set all my tech charging, had a wonderfully relaxing bath, dined on snacks I’d brought with me, and kept checking how quickly the sunlight was going (so I had a reference for when I’d need my headtorch the next night). I was earplugged up with lights out by about 10pm.

That's me on the far right, talking to Roz
I couldn’t have asked for a better night’s sleep, and when my alarm rang at the ungodly hour of 4:15am I jumped out of bed and was feeling very excited. Before long I found myself at Gas Street, loading my kit bags onto the van, and nervously chatting to other runners, completely incredulous at the challenge that lay ahead. What on earth was I thinking??? Nerves had definitely started to creep in.

Soon we were called through to the side of the canal, and the start. A quick briefing from the very smartly dressed Dick Kearn included the news that this year’s race would be his last as RD after 21 years. It made it feel even more special that I was lucky enough to have got through the ballot process this year. Without much fanfare, the 100 of us were suddenly off.

I remember seeing Mimi Anderson and a couple of guys disappear off into the distance...then I started to see everyone disappear into the distance.

Mimi leading the way
I was running faster than I’d planned but most people seemed to be running sub 10 min/miles! I was amazed but hung back and just tried to concentrate on sticking to my plan of starting slowly and staying comfortable. I was hopeful that I would make up places later on in the race, as I often do after such very steady starts!

The miles ticked by, the nerves evaporated, and I started to enjoy myself. I still couldn’t believe I was so far towards the back of the pack, but tried not to let it worry me. I made sure I took the time to look around me and appreciate the beautiful countryside and interesting route. I have never seen so many ducklings, goslings, and cygnets, and every time a little duck family swam past, I had to watch them. I didn’t get bored of the cuteness all the way to the end! There were lambs in the fields too and it was just lovely. There were a few too many swans and geese for my liking though, and at one point I got hissed at by a swan as I tried to get past their cygnets who had taken up residence on the path. Coward that I am, I waited for the next runner to catch me up and passed the swan with him on the right side to protect me!

Checkpoints were few and far between, as I knew they would be, but well stocked with food (I vividly remember the chocolate dipped strawberries and fudge!) and although at about 25 miles I could feel blisters starting on my feet, in that same place they always appear, I was unconcerned, and sure it’d all be alright. I was feeling pretty confident about it all! The weather was perfect for running, and all in all, I was feeling comfortable and having a good day. I was very dedicated to my plan of walking my 0.1 of every mile, although later on this became the first 0.1 of every half a mile, but made sure I did it regardless of how I was feeling, as I know it makes a difference – if I keep it up, I just don’t get the aches and pains that would inevitably afflict me if I was moving at the same pace, in the same way, for hours on end. 

The beautiful canal

I was trying to be very disciplined about my nutrition too. I was drinking to thirst, and adding electrolyte tablets to my bottles at each refill, and eating every four miles. I was carrying flapjack, dried mango, babybel, and salted nuts which suit me. I also had loads of gels with me – a whole box in my drop bag too – but after feeling nauseous for much of TP100 I decided to avoid them for as long as I could, and only ended up having two on the Sunday. This was a great decision and my stomach coped so much better than it ever has before on a long run. During the night, I supplemented the food I was carrying with packs of Rolos which were great – each one a delicious sugar shot!

There were a few other runners who I knew out on the course – most of them had passed me very early on, but it had been good to say a brief hello to Paul Ali, Roz and Fiona. There were also lots of runners who were leapfrogging me, and I them throughout the race…I’d pass, then walk, then they’d pass, and sometimes you’d run together for a bit for a chat. It was really nice and everyone was very friendly.

What was particularly lovely, and unexpected, was to see friends Steph and Keith out on the course a few times. I was struggling a bit with the distance between the checkpoints, and a lack of water, as I was only carrying my two Salomon soft bottles (in hindsight, should have used a bladder in my race vest for more water), and along the whole course I think I only saw one of the drinking water taps at the locks. I’d told Steph this, and after chatting to another runner who was also struggling and fancied some Fanta, bless them, they went off to find a village shop and came back to find us both at a later point, with bottles. So appreciated and made such a big difference!!

The checkpoint at Navigation Bridge particularly sticks in my mind. I was feeling pretty down when I got there, at 70 miles – my blisters had been getting progressively worse throughout the day, it was starting to feel a bit too much like hard work, and I was just going through a bad patch.

Rich Cranswick was there, awaiting the runner he was going to be buddy running with, and he was cheery as ever. He said how well I was doing, bearing in mind after TP100 I’d said to him that I didn’t think I would even get to the GUCR start line, but I barely said a word to him. I felt terrible about that for many more miles to come.

Sharon was also here too – she seemed to be everywhere during the race, at the start, turning on my tracker, and at many of the checkpoints looking after me, and I really appreciate the difference that she made.  She offered me hot food and drink, which I declined, and then I was offered it over and over again, which made us all laugh as the CP team were so very keen that I have some and someone new kept appearing, assuming I hadn’t been properly looked after by the others because I didn’t have a plate in my hand.

I got changed into my night gear, repacked my bag and Sharon filled up my bottles, and I soon headed off and was in much higher spirits that I had arrived in.

As well as my blisters, I was also suffering with some serious chafing…in unmentionable places! ;) I had planned to reapply the vaseline at Navigation Bridge but in a daft episode of shyness, I wanted somewhere a bit out of sight to do it. There didn’t seem to be anywhere, so I didn’t reapply and just stupidly soldiered on. A mistake I would repeat at every checkpoint and come to deeply regret!

The night started well – I generally enjoy running at night – and I was very happy with my decision to buy a second Petzl Tikka RXP Head Torch rather than having to worry about changing batteries (although I was also carrying spares in case) or using a less well powered secondary torch. I spent a fair amount of time plugged into the iPod - I had set up a playlist, and downloaded three books to listen to which helped keep me occupied over the weekend. I generally made better time than expected, keeping to my running/walking strategy. As these things always do, the night has turned into a bit of a blur, but I know it started getting tougher and tougher, my feet were getting more and more agonising, and my chafing was getting more and more raw. I remember the checkpoint in the middle of the night was a welcome relief – Rod had come down as he lived quite close and it was so nice to see him. A few other familiar faces too, and I chugged another can of red bull, had a few snacks, refilled my food and was soon on my way. But again…there wasn’t anywhere “private” enough that I felt I could go to apply more Vaseline, and so I just didn’t put any more on. 

Onwards into the darkness.
I remember having to climb through a tree that had fallen across the path. That was odd…I think I must have missed a diversion. I remember so many of the houseboats being beautifully lit up with fairy lights. I remember the group of teenagers that it felt tried to start a fight with me (I’m sure they didn’t in hindsight). I remember the bats swooping down. I remember lots of pain too.
At one point, I sat down on a bench by a lock. This was the first time I’d sat down all race (I always try not to sit at all) but I just desperately had to take the weight off my blisters for a brief second. It was bliss, but didn’t make the pain any less when I started moving again – realising it didn’t help, I didn’t do it again until much later.
I reached 100 miles in just over 23 hours – faster than I had run the TP100, and despite the blisters and the chafing, was feeling in much better shape. In fact, if it wasn’t for these incredibly annoying problems that were of my own making and could have been avoided with more sensible planning (i.e wearing shoes that fit me, and regularly applying Vaseline) I think could have been significantly faster to this point. My body itself was feeling fine and I wasn’t even that tired, the red bull and caffeinated electrolyte tablet I was using in one of my bottles, doing the job.
My handiwork
By the time I got to the checkpoint at 105 miles there was sunshine and I should have been feeling more positive but I just wanted to cut my feet off. Instead of such drastic action, while I was being made a bacon sandwich by another of the wonderful checkpoint crew (although I couldn’t face the bread and just ate the bacon) I borrowed some scissors and cut off the sides of my trainers. In preparation for the race, and knowing I was likely to get blisters, I had practiced on an old pair, so knew where to cut and what to do. When I put my shoes back on the blisters pushed happily through the holes! When I left the checkpoint, for about 200 yards, I felt like all my blister troubles were over as it felt so much easier on my feet…but I soon realised I had blisters under the sole as well, and the relief was limited. 
On I went though, with the sun really starting to warm things up.
The next 20 miles were the hardest. I was in agony with my feet, I was far too hot in my long sleeved night top that for some reason I hadn’t changed out of, and the heat was making me sweat more, making the chafing even worse. AAAargh!!!! Thankfully, during this section, I saw some family who had come down to cheer me on. It was a total surprise to see them and I was so pleased, although I’m not sure it came across that way as I didn’t stop. I did though, run with the children, Rosie and Rufus, for a couple of hundred yards, and although very brief, that is a special memory.
Onward…onwards…keep moving….then I saw Becca, Mark, and Steph and Keith again. I was in a particularly bad mood I think but so happy to see them. Having a familiar face is a godsend when it’s tough! But I kept going….
I saw them once more, and this time I sat down and had a bit of a moan about my feet. I had run out of water in one of my bottles and testament to how despondent I was feeling, when Becca offered to refill it from her bottle, I said I was fine, a number of times, until she just took my bottle from me and refilled it anyway! Good job she did – the next push onto the checkpoint was horrendous and took me forever as I was barely running at all. Chafing was agony, and at one point I took my trainers off and just walked along the grass for a bit of relief from the blisters.
The checkpoint at Springwell Lock eventually arrived, at 11.20am and I was so relieved! It was manned by good friend Lindley, his girlfriend Maxine and their respective children, and another lovely lady whose name I don’t know. I planned to cut more of my trainers away. When I asked for scissors, Lindley sat me down and despite my protestations, took off my trainers, socks, and managed to remove the evil and useless Compeed that I’d put on my feet before the run, and he proceeded to drain my bulging blisters. This must have been a truly horrible job but was so appreciated. Maxine then taped up my feet. While I was sat down, I started to feel woozy, and as I so often seem to do, managed to faint away, apparently quickly followed by a power nap! I came to in a different chair, feeling quite unwell. Maxine and the other CP lady looked after me, feeding me up and getting me changed into a tshirt – that felt a lot cooler, a lot better. Once I was ready to go, they walked with me for 10 minutes to make sure I was ok, before letting me wander off on my own. My feet were feeling much better although still incredibly sore, and my chafing was preventing me from running. I walked for the next forty minutes or so, and was very upset about the whole situation. Treating the blisters, fainting and walking so much had taken up loads of time, and I was annoyed at myself. My body still felt fine, but I was just struggling to keep move forward.
I’m not sure how but at some point I became numb to pain of my blisters and chafing, and decided I just had to run if I was ever going to get it done.
I found a second wind. The Springwell Lock team had saved my race and I was so grateful.
When I started running again everything suddenly felt right and I was so much happier – I even started to enjoy myself again. I remember running in front of a pub with lots of people sat outside - a lady clapped me, and said I was the only person in the race she’d seen running instead of walking. I was very pleased.
I was following my run/walk strategy again, and although I managed to get a bit lost at this stage, going over a bridge I shouldn’t have done, the bonus miles were minimal, and in some of my run sections I was hitting 11min/mile pace. This lasted about 10 miles, and I loved it.
At some point, the pain kicked in again.
Too many swans at Nici's checkpoint
I got to the final checkpoint at about 32 hours. There was Nici, who I’d be looking forward to seeing all race, with a big hug. Lovely! Sharon was there again, and it was only after the race finished that I realised it was Ed Catmur who had filled my bottles. I would have been starstruck if I’d noticed at the time :P 
Nici soon kicked me out of the checkpoint and on my way, and I happily went off to get the race finished. It was only 12 miles until the end, nothing in the scheme of what we’d already run, but unfortunately it wasn’t that easy. 
Pretty much as soon as I’d rounded the corner from the aid station, I started walking again, and I totally lost my head. The pain came back in waves, and I decided, after a few run attempts, that the pain during running wasn’t worth the better time, and I was going to walk it in. It took me nearly 5.5 hours to cover 12 miles! Incredible – I never thought I could be so slow, but not only was I walking, I kept stopping too. To sit down, or lean over, resting my hands on my knees, or to check the bridge numbers for no reason other than to justify spending a little more time not moving. I’d just given up trying because it hurt so much. Totally rubbish and in hindsight I am SO disappointed with that final section. Eventually though I was about 1.5 miles away, and I saw Francis and Chewie coming towards me along the path. WOOHOO!!!! I was very, very pleased to see them, but I couldn’t chat at all so I’m really sorry to Francis for being so mardy. Further along, my friend Simeon was waiting – again a total surprise that he’d come out to support. Lovely to see him - I walked on ahead, and Simeon and Francis chatted. He's running Comrades this weekend.
I knew we must be nearly there, but the finish seemed to take an absolute age to appear. In the end, something switched in my brain and I couldn’t take walking any more. "I’m going to run", I said to the boys, and was off. I just dealt with the pain, and found myself able to move. Why I couldn’t have done that for the preceding 10 miles god only knows. I was annoyed with myself again. Anyway.
The path seemed to go on forever, but eventually, I could see the finish gantry. I ran as fast as my legs could carry me – it felt like a sprint but in reality it was probably more like a waddle. But it didn’t matter…because I had finally finished. Dick hung the medal around my neck, and he shook my hand, and I welled up. I didn’t want to cry but I was SO emotional, and so happy. It was quite unbelievable that it was over and that I had achieved something so ridiculous. I finished in 37hrs 21 minutes, and was 3rd Lady. Mimi Anderson was 1st Lady – sharing a podium with Mimi (albeit in print only) has to be the highlight of my running career and I doubt it's something that I will ever top! Despite being disappointed that I had essentially given up towards the end, I was still very pleased to have finished well within my goal time of 40 hours.
I immediately took my trainers off, and everything was alright with the world again. I was on a massive high and very chatty with everyone, wandering around and getting in everyone’s way as I didn’t want to sit down. Lindley and his CP crew were there, as were lots of others I’d seen earlier in the race. I waited until Simeon and Francis joined us, and stayed, cheering in more of the runners who were finishing. It was wonderful, heart warming, and I would have loved to have stayed all night, except all of a sudden I felt I was shutting down. I said my goodbyes and Francis guided me over to the car. I was asleep in minutes.
As soon as we got home, I had a shower, applied sudocrem to the chafing, which on inspection wasn’t chafing anymore, but bleeding wounds, and drained the other blisters on my feet that had come up around the taping. I had an iodine solution footbath, and as the water soaked the tape away, I realised why I had been in so much pain with my feet!
On turning my phone on that night, I saw how much incredible support there’d been for me during the race. I’d hired a tracker, primarily so Francis knew where I was and so could come and pick me up at the right time, but I was absolutely blown away that anyone other than he and my mum had been watching! But apparently they had, in their droves, and everyone had sent me messages of support and congratulations. It was so touching, absolutely overwhelming in fact! The running community is so incredibly special and I feel so lucky to be a part of it.
Amazingly, I didn’t pick up any injuries, and although on Monday and Tuesday I was glued to the sofa, only hobbling to the kitchen and back, by Wednesday morning I was walking around, able to take the stairs normally, and my blisters and chafing were healing well. I decided to make the most of my day off work and headed down to the coast to support at the Dunkirk 6hr Challenge, before planning to see my brother and the family in Canterbury. Being at the race was incredible – everyone treated me like an absolute celebrity! I was very lucky that Ellen Cottom, who has inspired me as a runner for years since The Toad in 2012, was there – she’s run GUCR twice, finishing last year, and is taking on Thames Ring 250 this year! Also, Janet Cobby, who I didn’t know, but is also a GUCR finisher from a few years ago. I got a photo with them both – it felt really special - they are incredible women to aspire to be like!

Now, to get ready for next year. I will definitely put my name in the ballot, and, if I'm lucky enough to get another place, see what I can achieve at this race with some decent preparation. I need to lose weight so my chafing isn’t so inevitable, I need to buy some trainers that fit me for the beginning of the race, and some bigger ones, to change into during the race. I need to train more. Next year, I will see just how good an ultra runner I can be.

Many thanks to Ross Langton, Anna Hatton, Lindley Chambers & Keith Niven for the use of their photos.


  1. Brilliant blog post Naomi, made me cry! Xx

  2. Huge well done, something to be immensely proud of.
    I had fun crewing in 2013, and that was hard enough.

  3. You are one tough cookie! Well done SUPER STAR. So very proud to be a friend of yours. Lap up the attention honey you totally deserve it. xx

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  5. The feelings on the when in finish line.

    Be visible with 247 viz.