Friday, 2 June 2017

2017 GUCR Report

GUCR 2017

Ian Brazier

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.

                                                                      The Crew

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!

I also had by now blisters on both little toes and this was just annoying and even though I'd Vas'd them and wore toe socks this always happens on super long distances, maybe I'll tape them next time but for now I thought I'd take a chance and change shoes from Trailrocs to a pair of Altra's as they have a massive toe box and thought I'd give them a go as the feet swelled. Talking of footwear for a second. I'd been asked a few times on the event why no running sandals? Well I didn't want to take the chance if I was honest as I'd never worn them on any 100's but next goal is NDW100 in Luna’s maybe?

Running into the 70 mile CP

Anyway, we set off again but now with Brian my new member of the team in toe. We met our crews more frequently as the light faded into darkness and we were still managing to run / walk at a steady pace but it was obviously getting hard work as the day was starting to catch up with me. It's has been said I do sometimes like a moan when running at nights and although I always warn people of this and friends know what Im like when Im tired, I do honestly try and keep as much inside as possible.

Me and Paul had struck up a really decent partnership in the day, taking it in turns to lead and set the pace where we could and this worked well but soon I noticed my turns at the front were getting less and less and I was being pulled along. I know what this is like and I eventually told Paul I was sorry I couldn’t set the pace now. Paul was cool but I struggle when I try and run someone else’s pace so I started to think about my next choices?

I said to Brian that I needed to stop at some point and sit down. I know people say “beware of the chair” but I’ve never had an issue getting back up and sometimes I need to rest the legs and the mind for a for minutes and I feel this sometimes helps you continue after resetting yourself. We approached a check point at 85 miles and I told the guys I’d need to stop soon and chose 90 miles at Leighton Buzzard. When I eventually got there I said goodbye to Paul and thanked him for his support including his wife Emily and the whole crew and Gerry emptied the back of his car and set up a bed for me to try and sleep. I asked him to wake me in 20 minutes and under no circumstances move the car or I’d be DQ’d and I shut my eyes thinking I’d drop straight off but not a chance. The body was so twitchy that I couldn’t go off so I lay there with my eyes closed just determined to relax.

My bedroom for 20 minutes

Suddenly the tailgate opened and Gerry said it was time to get up. Well now I was spaced out like a rabbit in the headlights and the body was shaking violently due to the change in temperature. I put my kit back on as quickly as possible and me and Brian set off into the night. We carried on the run walk but the run sections were noticeably shorter but I tried to increase the walking pace to compensate but we were slower now and the large amount of time I had in the bank from earlier was rapidly disappearing and the 100 mile point seemed to never come.

At around 4am, the sun began to come up and I had a little mental boost and kept pushing and eventually we approached the Pub by the canal at just under 100 miles but my watch had me covering 102 miles already. Even with the major slow down I managed to get to 100 miles in 22 hours 20 minutes, actually a 100 mile PB by 1 hour and 23 minutes. This was great but as I said I feared now as the new day set in that I’d start the dreaded “death march” and what I initially called the last race of 45 miles could take a very long time.

Day 2

We left the 100 mile point and walked along the canal path knowing we were approaching the M25 and places that were familiar. One of the strangest facts so far in the event was how I had absolutely no idea where I was at any time. I try not to look at the watch too much or the time on really long events as I find when you try and tick off miles they never come quick enough especially 24 hours in.

As the sun came up fully and the heat started to cook me again, I started to really flag and the race was now a full time march with running forgotten. I could barely walk in a straight line and Brian needed to keep on the water side of me just to make sure I didn’t take a dip. All I could think of now was getting to 115 miles and the crew / buddy runner change.

As anyone who has run a long ultra will know, managing the head is a huge part of the event. I’m getting better the more I do as I used to moan loads. Now I tend try and keep the moaning inside and this time they’d been a lot of it. Some time on any long run you’ll have low points. This is due to fatigue, lack of calories. I normally try and smash as many calories as I can as soon as I notice this and also shift my focus onto something else but there are times when all you can think about is stopping. This has been covered loads of times before but I was telling myself 100 reasons why quitting would be ok. I’d PB’d 100 miles so that’s a great achievement, I’m not enjoying this so just stop, I have a niggle in my ankle that’s getting worst, and so on.

What you need to do is ignore these demons. I thought about all the time I’d put into training and all the things I’d missed with my family so I could do this. Running is selfish at the best of times but then doing 5 months of training to bin it when the going gets really tough would result in me not being able to look my family and friends in the eye. The other thing was my crew. They invested their time to support me and I’d promised them that I wouldn’t quit. Little things like I had the race event shirts already and what the heck was I going to do with them if I didn’t finish? Plus ultimately I didn’t want to come back (unless I wanted too). I’d listed the “pros” and “cons” and continuing won.

As we approached the lock at 108 miles I saw Gerry and the crew plus some extra people? Len and Darren had noticed I was struggling pace wise and come forward one leg to change over teams early and it was just what I needed as I was walking dead and slumped on the floor for a minute to compose myself.

Brian and Gerry were amazing and words don’t actually cover how I feel about all these guys. Actions were required now and I knew I needed to get this done for everything they put into this. I ate a few things, switched bottles and this time is was Darren’s job to keep me out the canal. Brian on the handover had told Darren that we’d not ran for some time and I felt bad as I know how strong a runner he is and I felt like I was letting him down by being so slow and keeping him by my side and he couldn’t even push the pace or loosen his legs by sprinting forwards as this would be assistance.

After a while he suggested we try a little run just for a short while and only because the legs could probably benefit from some different movement every now and then. So I started to shuffle. It felt so slow and I thought that I was moving like I’d messed myself (which I probably had being honest). But it was faster than walking and morale wise it was good.

The jog didn’t last long but as I started to slowly wake up I was jogging more and more. I was also getting frustrated how long it was taking to get further down the course and I needed to get a move or the 2nd night was a real possibility. We kept meeting Len who was now supporting with Dan who was back in the game.

We even started to overtake some people which felt very strange and it was nice to see others especially a few I knew but a little jaded as some were obviously battling their own race and that’s the thing with these events, you never know what can happen but I hoped we all would make it to the finish.


We eventually reached the 120 mile check point and I sat down again to eat probably the best bacon sarnie I’ve ever had (sorry vegan friends) with less than a marathon to go. I was trying to eat as much as possible even though the appetite had long gone and I think I’ll need to look into liquid calories in future events as I was also feeling sick and wondered if it could be the large amount of Tailwind supplements I’d consumed? I had no idea but despite the extreme heat on both days, I’d not actually crashed to a standstill yet some a little sickness is ok by me.

We pushed on and suddenly something just clicked in my head. On a running section I decided to start pushing the pace again and soon I realised I could actual run pretty well. I was 125 miles into a race and doing 9 mm’s sections again, the pace was really starting to pick up and now we were passing even more people. What was amazing talking of people were the public. Everyone seemed to know what we were doing and clapped and cheered every time we passed. Young, old, anyone seemed to be in awe of what we were doing and that really helped. What I also started to do was believe for the first time I was barring any disaster going to finish, it was now just down to how long?

The biggest landmark that I knew on the whole course and the final pat on the back that you’d probably be ok (cut-off depending) for me was Bull’s Bridge where you turn left onto the Paddington spur of the canal and 13 miles to the finish. This sounds like its in the bag but what I also knew from Country to Captial was that this could be the slowest, hardest 13 miles ever. 13 miles would normally take a couple of hours at most but this could take 2 or even 3 times that. We pushed for one more mile and arrived at the last aid station where Len and Dan were also there as usual. That was it. No more aid stations until the finish and 12 miles to go. .

We continued up the canal and I was telling Darren that we’d soon start seeing the signs of the finish like the railway lines, the posh apartments then the supermarkets and flats but they never seemed to appear? Eventually after what seen like an age we did get there and I even managed to sprint finish and I crossed the finish line 36 hours 44 minutes and by my watch 147 miles later and we were done. Of course Len and Dan were there!

Paul Adams and me at the finish

All that’s left to say is thanks to everyone. My crew, fellow runners and their crews, my friends that supported me on the way, race organisers and finally my family. You are all amazing!