GUCR 2018 race report

In 2015 to run a 145-mile-long race was absolutely unthinkable to me.

In 2016, having done a 100-mile-long race the prospect of attempting a 145-miler became quite appealing. I applied for a place at the 2017 edition of the Grand Union Canal Race (GUCR). As the race is now quite popular, it is oversubscribed and there is a ballot to get a place.

Unfortunately I was unlucky in the draw, so I looked for an alternative and decided to attempt the 147-mile-long Viking Way Ultra. As detailed in my race report, I failed, but learned some valuable lessons. Being very determined to redeem myself and wanting to do this still in 2017, I signed up for the 1st edition of the Kennet & Avon Canal 145 Mile Race. I successfully finished it and described my journey on the blog. Even though I suffered from sleep deprivation and exhaustion, I was hooked and I knew I want to, I need to run the iconic GUCR. In late 2017 I applied for a place and got it! I was excited at the prospect of running GUCR in May 2018!

The Grand Union Canal Race

GUCR is probably the most iconic British ultramarathon. It’s a 145-mile-long race starting in Birmingham and finishing in London. It takes the competitors all along the Grand Union Canal through Warwick, Leamington Spa, Milton Keynes, Hemel Hempstead, Uxbridge and down to Little Venice right by the London Paddington train station. The canal winds its way through beautiful and mostly tranquil English countryside.

The race route with marked checkpoint locations

I highly recommend this article if you’d like to understand better why this race is so iconic. It explains why competitors tend to go back to running it year after year and why it feels more like a gathering of an extended family rather than a tough competition.

My preparation

In February-April 2018 I trained quite well and was pleased with the work done. Despite pressures and demands of the day-to-day life, I generally managed to do a few runs per week. That included 1 speed/tempo/fartlek session and a long run or 2 long back-to-back runs on the weekend. Moreover, once a week I did some rowing on an indoor rower and some occasional legs and core exercises. In April, 5 weeks before GUCR, I ran in Harpagan, a 100-km race in Poland. I raced hard, but recovered quite well. After a week of rest, I did two weeks of good mileage, culminated with the Henley Trail Half Marathon 2 weeks prior to GUCR. I ran it in 1 hour and 49 minutes, my personal best!

After the Henley Half I had 2 weeks of rest. I also imposed upon myself a caffeine detox, to make my body more receptive to caffeine during the race and to avoid severe sleep deprivation issues like those I suffered at KACR last year. I felt quite good and positive before the race. I felt confident I would finish it, the real question was how long it would take me.

I had three goals:

  • plan maximum was to finish the race under 34 hours. Why 34? Well, an under-34 GUCR finish acts as a qualifier for Spartathlon. I knew that 34 hours would be a stretch, but if I had a brilliant race and managed it, I could attempt Spartathlon. Anyway, the top goal has to be a stretch 🙂
  • plan optimum was to finish faster than I finished KACR last year. I was really looking at 36-38 hours vs. 40 hours and 13 minutes at KACR
  • plan minimum was just to finish, no matter the time.

The race day

I headed to Birmingham the day before the race. On the train from Oxford I met my friend Rod, also heading for GUCR. We had a good chat making the train journey much shorter. I stayed for the pre-race night at friends’ house just outside of Birmingham, together with my friend Rafał, who was also running GUCR. Having discussed with him the 34-hour target, the required pacing, and timing strategy I started to grow less confident that it is within my reach. But still, the plan was to start the race at a moderate pace, not too slow, not too fast and maintain it for as long as possible.

With Rafał at the registration

In the early morning I registered at the race start at Gas Street, left my drop bags with the organisers and said hello to many friends and familiar faces. Shortly before 6 AM Rafał, I and 96 other runners descended the steps to the canal. There we lined up to listen to the race briefing delivered by Dick Kearn, the father of the race. We were ready to go.

Dick’s sermon

The race

At 6 AM we started a very long journey. Unlike all my previous blog posts, I am not going to write up a detailed account of journey, step by step, checkpoint to checkpoint. Instead, I had decided to take my GoPro camera with me and record a few words every couple of hours. The reason for that is that I wanted to see and I wanted others to see how I really felt at various stages of the race. I was curious myself how my tiredness would show, how my mood will vary from bullish to despairing, how sleep-deprived I would look.

Of all the short clips recorded I put together a 15-minute long video, which is, in essence, 37 hours and 45 minutes condensed into 15 minutes! If you have time, get yourself a cup of tea or coffee, sit comfortably and enjoy the movie! Behold:

Running into CP1, still fresh and full of energy!
Somewhere between CP1 and CP2
Rafał leading the way into CP2 at Hatton Locks
On my way to CP3. Smiling, but no longer doing much running
Somewhere between CP3 and CP4. My expression says it all
At CP4. No longer a happy bunny
37 hours and 45 minutes from the start. I made it!

Our bodies are amazing. After over 37 hours on my feet, with a multitude of high and lows, I still managed to find some hidden stamina to run hard the last couple of miles hoping to finish well under 38 hours. And I did.

Out of 98 starters, 54 people made it to the finish. The winner needed just 25 hours and 35 minutes, while the 54th finisher used up almost the whole time of 45 hours! I placed 21st, which for me is a very pleasing result. Rafał unfortunately pulled out of the race at CP4 due to a hip problem that was nagging him for a long time and didn’t seem to ease.

The finishers’ list
Fed, rested and ready to roll back home

I was very satisfied having crossed the finish line and I felt that training paid off (to some degree). I was faster by 2.5 hours than I was at KACR last year. I didn’t hallucinate and didn’t struggle for sleep as badly as I did at KACR and I generally felt I had a much better race.

Some numbers

I thought it may be interesting to have a glimpse at how fast I covered each stretch and how I was gradually slowing down. This unfortunately proves, that I still started too fast, even though I thought that was an easy and comfortable pace!

Stretch: distance [miles] time of stretch [h:m] stretch speed [mph] distance from start [miles] speed from start [mph]
Start 0 0 0.00 0 0.00
CP1 10.7 01:45 6.11 10.7 6.11
CP2 11.7 02:05 5.62 22.4 5.84
CP3 13.6 03:13 4.23 36 5.11
CP4 17 04:30 3.78 53 4.59
CP5 17.5 04:46 3.67 70.5 4.32
CP6 15.5 04:11 3.71 86 4.20
CP7 14 04:25 3.17 100 4.01
CP8 20 05:46 3.47 120 3.91
CP9 13 03:49 3.41 133 3.86
CP10 12 03:15 3.69 145 3.84

Recovery and what’s coming next

For the first 3 days walking and moving was tough due to muscle soreness. Fortunately, it turned out my feet were in a great shape with hardly any blisters, apart from a couple insignificant ones on toes. After 4-5 days my muscles no longer hurt, though I felt generally tired and sleepy, which is to be expected after such an effort.

8 days after the race I went out for an easy 5k jog to test how my legs feel. I could feel sort of tiny needles in my legs, but moving felt good. 10 days after the race I’m feeling quite good, as though I could get back to some hard training!

I won’t though. I can happily spend the next weeks not pushing hard with training. Due to imminent expansion of the family (end July) I have no races in the next few months therefore also no need for hard training. My next race is the Centurion Autumn 100 on 13th October. My aim there is not to race hard and score well, but to have a gentle 100-miler with a finish within the time limit so that I can have my qualifier for the Western States Endurance Run.

All the best,

Marcin

 

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