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Grand Union Canal Race Report 2014

By Debbie Gibbins

This was to be my third GUCR race and on my two previous attempts I had been blessed with perfect running weather.  This time the forecast was not good, Ernie read out the weather report in our hotel room the night before - 6am light rain 8am heavy rain 10am heavy rain 12 noon heavy rain.  He said “Guess what the afternoon forecast is” I replied “heavy rain by any chance?”  Yes with thunder showers to break it up a bit.  This would be a testing race.  Although we were promised sunshine on Sunday my feet could be a mashed mess by then. 

Goal A was a PB.  Goal B was a sub 40 hour time.  I knew the weather would make this challenging as my feet had not been subjected to persistent rain for this length of time.

GUCR start

At the start - Gas Street

Saturday morning at the start I was surprised that there was no rain, not even of the light variety.  At the start I met with Elisabet Frankenberg and Colin Barnes and we wished each other luck.  It was their first run over 100 miles but as they are both far faster runners than myself I did not expect to see them during the race.  As it turned out our paths crossed at various stages as the interesting thing about ultras is that any runner’s race plan and the time spent at checkpoints or support stops can mean that runners move positions frequently.  As we set off I exchanged comments with several runners that it was currently perfect running weather, cool , overcast but dry and ever the optimist I said hopefully it will stay that way.  A lady I was running with said that rain was expected at 8 am and sure enough the rain arrived just after I passed through CP 1 (10.7 miles).  Light at first but gradually it got heavier by the next check point 22.5 miles it was chucking it down.  During the section between CP1 and CP2 I caught up with Tom Boother and we ran together for a while. He told me he had successfully completed the race in 2012 in 38:16. He ran in a similar way to me, steady but a good slow pace.  We agreed the run/walk method did not suit us as our running was not fast enough and we were not fast walkers either.  For a very brief while we were joined by Heike Bergman from Germany who was finding that the persistent heavy rain was getting to her.  We caught her up because she was telephoning a friend in London to find out if the rain was as heavy there as she wanted something to encourage her to continue.  Fortunately for her and her flagging motivation her friend said it was better in London and she carried on to finish 3rd lady.  She adopted the run/walk method with very fast running so conversation was brief as I struggled to stay with her.  However I stayed with her long enough to answer her question about where I lived and to ascertain that she knew exactly where Chalkwell was even though she was a German as she had lived in Gants Hill in Essex!  

At CP2 I had a warm welcome from Pete Karaiskos and Javed Bhatti who were bravely waiting in the rain both telling me how good I looked.  It lifted my spirits although it was fair to say the rain had not dampened my enthusiasm for the race.   However a brief loo stop here meant that I lost my buddy Tom and as he had gained quite a bit of ground he steadily disappeared.  Although I did not see him again I now know he finished behind me in 42:41. 

Hatten Locks

Hatten Locks 22.5 miles

The rain was on and off now, heavy at times then brief respite.  At mile 31 I had my first sock change during a short break in the weather.  However the rain had fallen so heavily that within 30 seconds I had to run through an unavoidable puddle and my feet were wet again.  A good humoured Scottish runner came up behind me and started a conversation.  He made a comment about the lovely wet conditions and I told him of my sock change.  He said at least my feet felt great for 30 seconds!  I vowed to store that memory for the race. He was a first timer and asked for tips.  I warned him not to take a wrong turn and go on the Oxford canal at bridge 95.  He thanked me for the advice and pushed on. 

Around 43 miles I heard a voice behind me “you can run but you can’t hide!” It was Colin and Elisabet.  Their race plan was a slower start than mine but they were speeding up and I had been having a bit of a bad patch, still running but I had slowed.  They looked good and strong. 

I was aware that some blisters were brewing here so I contacted Ernie and as he had a good spot at 48.5 miles where he could work on my feet.  It was a 25 minute stop here but worth it as the blisters were not in full bloom yet so treating them before they got too advanced was a good policy.  It was also another brief dry moment.

Unfortunately after departing the rain returned with a vengeance bringing with it thunder and lightning.  Deep joy! I came into CP 3 at 53 miles in drenching rain, shivering and cold and I was certainly not hanging around.  I had a very good section between CP 3 and Stoke Bruene (65 miles) where I overtook a number of runners and clawed back quite a bit of lost time. This was the stop where you prepare for night running.  Pete was there again with Ernie and said that Elisabet and Colin had just left.  I changed clothes and had some food and set off again. The next milestone is Navigation Bridge, CP 4, 70 miles.  I arrived at 22.15 well inside sub 40 target time for this stage.  It was here that I was joined by Dean Ovel my night support runner.  He was due to meet me slightly further up the path but I foolishly had forgotten my hydration pack when leaving Stoke Bruene and Dean kindly offered to run down to meet me with it.  Ernie called me to tell me and said he would get there first even though he had to cover a greater distance as he was running “twice as fast” as me.  As it happened we arrived at pretty much the same time.  I was pleased to see him as it gets harder to keep focus when darkness falls.  I told him I had been running non-stop (apart from walking the inclines and locks) and he then told me he would not allow me to disappoint myself by failing to continue the running.  I set off at a good pace with Dean.  We were chatting away and someone on a canal boat asked if I talked for the whole of the race! I said that my running buddy was keeping me distracted!  We ran non-stop to Ernie’s next meeting point.  We stocked up on food and tea and headed off for the night’s run so that Ernie could get some sleep.  Dean was an outstanding support runner he kept me positive and motivated and although he was kind enough to let me walk when I started to feel a little sick I promised to walk fast.  He agreed it was up to the Dean standard of quick walking and encouraged me to run when I could.  We maintained a 4 mile an hour pace throughout the night which was faster than I had planned and we were 24 minutes up on my planned time during this leg.  We came into CP 5 at 84.5 miles at 01:57 Sunday morning.  Ernie pointed out that our friend Andy Ives was also at the checkpoint.  We exchanged pleasantries and moaned about the relentless rain that was still plaguing us through the night.  Unfortunately I was starting to suffer here.  I was shivering badly and struggling to eat now.  Nothing seemed appealing.  I had a warm drink and paracetamol and piled on warm clothes.  We set out after taking almost all of our full permitted 40 minute stop.  I walked for a while to let my temperature settle.  Rikard Hallgren (a Swedish runner also known to Elisabet and Colin) passed by keeping himself motivated with music on his MP3 player.  We exchanged a few words. 

The next meeting place was Leighton Buzzard another stop here for breakfast.  It was 04:15.  I managed to eat some porridge. We pressed on and as daylight was breaking I perked up a lot and Dean got me running again.  We passed Rikard again who was run/walking.  Dean was seeing me through to the 100 mile stage, CP6.  We cracked on running the whole section non-stop to come into Grand Junction Arms, 100 miles at 7:01, 25 hours 1 minute. 

GUCR 100 miles

At Grand Junction Arms - 100 miles

I was delighted with my 100 mile time and very grateful to Dean.  Here I met with Ernie, Colin and Elisabet were at the checkpoint being looked after by Pete and Stephanie.  Elisabet had been tired through the night but was coming through it and Colin was suffering with blisters and other ailments.  Ernie went to work on my feet and we re-plastered my toes.  Andy Ives was also there and we compared blister stories.  As Elisabet and Colin got up to leave Colin said “in the nicest possible way you are an old pro and I expect you to be passing us soon”.  A back-handed compliment if ever I heard one!! 

I did struggle to run at first as this was the muddiest section of the race so far.  I got going again and ran into Cowroast Lock with a supporter clapping me and saying was very impressive at 102 miles.  Dean was staying on for a short while to watch our progress.  I saw Dean and Ernie again at 108 miles.  He said I would need to run 3 miles an hour to make a sub 40 time.  I was now run/walking and the running was slow.  The target was possible but I would need to dig deep. It was time to say goodbye to Dean so with a hug for my marvellous buddy I set off again. 

With Dean

Final farewell to buddy Dean

I felt I needed to start pushing again. The next meeting point was 115 miles.  I ran non-stop again.  During this section Rikard with a second wind passed me and he suddenly recalled where he had met me before, at the Thames Ring 250 mile race which he unfortunately had to retire from and I was a checkpoint manager when Ernie was running it.  I was met a mile before the meeting point by my Sunday support runner Terry, Ernie’s son.  He was impressed I was running as I approached.  As I came into Boxmoor Bridge Elisabet and Colin were there. They took off with Rikard. 

With Terry

My new running buddy Terry

I was finding it hard going though and battling with feelings of sickness, even fluid made me feel sick.  I struggled to CP 7 Springwell Lock (120.3 miles) where Stephanie, who was supporting Elisabet and Colin, asked me if I wanted anything.  I asked for squash as I thought it might be more palatable than water.  However I still struggled to get it down.  I took salt buffer tablets and left the checkpoint and after 5 minutes I promptly threw up the contents of my stomach (which was mostly liquid anyway).  I knew this would be a hard last 25 miles.  I contacted Ernie and asked if he could get me some stomach medication to stop the sickness.  This was a far from easy task on a Sunday after 4pm.  However he found some and met me with Eno powders.  It helped a lot.  I started taking on water again and I started picking up the pace of my walking.  Terry started to work out what I would need to do to get a sub 40 time.  I had lost so much time on this section though it was now looking a very tough target.  However I was not about to give up on it yet.  Just before CP 8 Hamborough Tavern (133 miles) we worked it out again.  I would need to run 14 minute miles to do it over the last 12 miles.  I accepted that was an impossibility but was determined to finish as well as possible.  I pushed the walking pace changing my goal to sub 41 hours.  I was going extremely well up to around 5 miles from the finish.  This was around the point that darkness fell and I struggled badly with sleep deprivation.  I had Terry count down the miles for me to keep me going.  I struggled to hold a straight line as I walked and had to keep forcing myself to stay awake.  I just kept putting one foot in front of the other and battled to the finish in just over my Plan B time, coming in at 41 hours 9 minutes.  I cannot be disappointed though, I have entered this tough race three times and finished it 3 times.  This was a 1 hour 25 minute PB for me and in the process I ran a 25 hour 100 mile time, something I would have been pleased with in a 100 mile race let alone as part of a 145 mile one. 

Somehow I don’t think this will be my last attempt as I get closer to that sub 40 goal.

GUCR medal

Sporting my 2013 GUCR T shirt with one of my 3 medals