Well I'm sitting in bed writing this at 4am two days post event as the body still thinks this is is a normal time to be operating. What's the biggest thing I've learnt from this process over the last few months? Although the body is important, it's the head and the heart that rule.
What is GUCR? Well a couple of years ago that was something I asked. I'd been running distance for sometime and every now and then people would mention their bucket list events and these four letters would occasionally come up?
The Gran Union Canal Race! This year would be its 23rd year and in this time its became ultra running folklore. Small in scale compared to the large commercial events that now appear everywhere but huge in stature as 100 people every year attempt to run the 145 miles along the Grand Union Canal from Birmingham to Little Venice in Paddington London.
I'd hear stories from people I knew that had taken part and even though the distance by today's standards isn't that long (a 615 mile event was taking place at the same time this year), events that go on much longer than GUCR start to become something else in my mind. Absolutely respect all events but any longer and the simple race format starts to change after.
You would see people wear the GUCR finisher hoodies with pride at other events and you'd naturally have to nod in respect as you knew they belonged to an exclusive club, So when did my GUCR story start? Well actually you could say 4 years ago when I did my first ultra Country to Capital 45 miles that includes in its second half the actual finish of the it's "big brother", so that least I'd recced the finish!
The actual story starts end of last year when I was looking for an main event for 2017 and it was coming up to ballot time for this and I thought "why not" probably won't get a place as it's over subscribed every year so I put my name in the hat. The night of the draw came and lovely Gin Lawson who'd actually traveled up to watch it kindly messaged me to say I'd got a place... Poop was my first reaction if I'm honest.
I next needed a plan for training. Like any other running event you need to put the miles in before hand or race day won't end well most times. I started like usual plotting key build up races slowly building distance up then planning training runs in between. The first of these buildup events was in January and it took five long cold months before I towed the start line.
So how did I train compared to previous 100's? I did more 50 mile events and tougher long runs but I also ran faster generally than before determined to give myself the best shot possible, what I also planned was waking practice as I'd lost time previously when run/walking/hiking as my pace was slow (never managed walking training).
The other big difference to the norm was this time I had a crew. The GUCR splits the entries in two groups "supported and unsupported". I'm not sure if it's true but I thought as it was difficult to get a crew for these events, maybe I stood a better chance in the draw? Anyway I put out a message on social media and amazingly got some offers of help and Team Brazier was born!
At about this time started to search for as much information on the event as possible. I also spoke to a few friends that had done the event and Colin Barnes from my Race Kit in Southend even gave me his detailed race plan spreadsheet from previous years he'd taken part this was going to prove critical as it formed the plan for my whole team. The plan was based on a finishing time of 34 hrs but to be honest my only real goal was to finish and to finish in daylight in the second day as mentally a second night would be tough.
So who was in the team? I needed I figured I needed at least 5 people's help ideally. One to crew support following me between checkpoints on route feeding me as required Saturday day, one Saturday night and one Sunday day. I'd also like two buddy runners (not pacers as assistance isn't allowed) to keep me company in the 2nd half.
Dan who is part of the admin team for a local running event was the first shift, Gerry who as well as a decent runner is Mr Parkrun Chelmsford was night shift and lastly was Len, ultra runner and again an experienced event director. For running company I had Brian who's paced me successfully on every 100 I've done and Darren who I train with regularly and is probably one of the most solid all round ultra runners I know.
What was most important though was I could trust them all literally with my life. I knew this would be the hardest event I'd done and I knew they'd be times when I couldn't think straight and these people would be my safety net if all else failed, I need to trust them totally (cue dramatic music).
Anyway after weeks of running and meeting after meeting my bags and boxes were packed and it was the day before the event and I was waiting for Dan to take me to Birmingham in his camper which as decked out with everything you could need for an event like this (including the kitchen sink!)
The Kit (not including food)
After a chilled out ride to Birmingham we somehow managed to stumble on the hotel where registration was taking place and the bar opposite where most of the runners were eating.
I booked us into our hotel 5 mins walk away and I lined up with some of the who's who of ultra running to sign on the dotted line.
Over the road it was again an all star meet up with people wearing race shirts from some of the most exclusive events around the world. I felt a little out of my depth but it was nice to see some familiar faces such as Fiona, Jo, Baz and Colin. Me and Dan had a couple of beers and some food then went back to the hotel for an early night as it was a 4:45 alarm call.
Unlike some who'd stayed at hotels right in the centre we had a quiet night and I got up just before the alarm and sorted my kit for the last time before tucking into a tin of cold baked beans and sausages, just like being in the army again! I grabbed my kit and met up with Fiona, Joe and Chris and walked to the start around the corner where it was good to see more people I recognised.
The Premier Crew
We were asked to walk to the canal side and after a short speech by Dick Kearn the original race director who in the last years handed the reins to Keith Gooden, it was the countdown and we were all running.
The first thing I noticed was I was near the back of the 107 starters with everyone I knew nowhere to be seen. I didn't want to go out quick especially as it was due to be steaming hot but it was still early and cool so I guess it's run while you can, so I stepped up the pace to try and find people I knew. Luckily I caught up Colin and Paul Adams who I knew through a couple of events and were soon jogging together.
Felt pretty good jogging along trying to stick to 10 minute miles for as long as possible which was a minute and a half faster per mile than planned. As a result I was building up time in the bank that I was going to need later as it turned out but still not trying to go too fast that I burnt out before even halfway. This was my biggest concern pre-race and I guess I was going to suck it and see.
I'd asked to meet Dan before the first official stop even though I didn't think I'd need him but just in-case I had some kit issues that needed sorting quick but all good so far so we pushed on and soon we got to the first stop at 10 miles, I filled one of my bottles and was offered something to eat by Emily of Paul's crew.
The three of us were running well together and although I was kitted out and prepared to run alone it was nice having company especially Colin who had already completed this a number of times. We carried on like this as it got warmer and the early storm rain that had cooled us had long done and it was mega humid.
The pace was steady for at least 30 miles but soon Colin needed some admin time so we jogged on but didn't see him for a while and we were down to a duo. The crew support was amazing with Paul's team being at one point and mine at the next. Dan had the bottles I needed and some food in a small pack and I'd let him know for the next stop if I wanted something different. Crewing isn't easy but it was all going to plan.
By now the day was really warm and the pace earlier was showing so we started to run/walk allowing the body time recover I think we were on 25 run 5 mins walk and this was working well as the overall pace was slower approximately 11 min/miles but we were saving energy.
The next milestone was 45. At this point we would be less than 100 miles left and was described as where the event really starts from! We kept this going past 50 and what I called the first race of three completed. I don't think you can go and think about the complete distance so I said it's 2 x 50 milers with a 45 mile at the end. So I was on part two and all good.
Coming up to 55 miles and we are in yet another country section where the Canal just cuts through the fields and nothing else, it's nice but hours of the same backdrop was starting to get a bit repetitive. Luckily we were approaching the point where a work friend lived and said she'd pop down to say hi. We were actually bang on 34 hr pace still so there might be a chance to see her. I'd already seen a friend Caroline and it's a real boost and then in the distance I thought I could see Suzanne and her family and friends coming up and yes it was them, they'd made banners and had loads of snacks etc. They'd probably been waiting a while for me and it was amazing.
By now we were preparing to reach the 70 mile point of the race and nearly halfway and more significant for me is the fact that I'll be switching crews to Gerry for the night section and also picking up Brian as a buddy runner. Dan's shift was over. He'd been amazing, he'd managed to gauge my needs throughout the day and been there when I'd needed him. Top guy!
Talking of top guys, as I was running into the aid station on Navigation Bridge where I was heckled from the pub by the one and only James Adams! I'd like thank him (I think for the motivation), I'd also re-read his GUCR sections in his book prior to the race and the advice was invaluable.
I took the opportunity to change my kit for the night and wondered if the new UD Timmy Olson race vest I'd used so far would take all the kit I needed as it was pretty lightweight but it did fantastic carrying a jacket, two mobiles, two water bottles, space blanket, battery charger and some food and more!