Things I learnt running GUCR

I first experienced GUCR in 2017 when Tom ran it and I joined him as a buddy runner for his final 20 mile death march to the finish. It’s fair to say that he didn’t have a good race – at one point we were overtaken by a man walking pushing a buggy! Despite him having a race shocker, he was full of the race and kept telling me I should run it. I wasn’t convinced. The last 20 miles of the GUCR aren’t the most scenic at the best of times, even less so when you’re trying to drag your husband to the finish line, so I felt like I’d seen enough of the GUC to last me a lifetime!

Fast forward two years and Tom was on the GUCR start line again, where he had a much better race, and this time I was crewing him from the start with our good friends Chris and Rhianon. Seeing the entire race from a crewing and then buddy running perspective, I saw first hand how special GUCR was and knew I would run it one day.

Three years later it was my turn to be on the start line, with Tom on the other side on crewing duties, again with our wonderful friends Chris and Rhianon, who were giving up another bank holiday weekend to spend it on the side of a canal!

Here are some of the things I learnt making the 147 mile journey from Birmingham to London:

Birmingham to London didn’t feel ‘that’ far

If you look at London to Birmingham on a map it seems a long way, and when we picked our friends up in London and then drove up to Birmingham the day before the race, it felt like a long journey in our van – Tom also informed me that this was the direct 100 mile route as opposed to the 147 mile route I would be doing! However, I experienced the exact opposite on race day as the miles seemed to fly by and there was never a point where I felt like I was running a long way. I don’t know if it was the variety of areas you run though, the mix of terrain, the support from people on the canal, the fact I was seeing my crew every 2-3 hours, that I paced it well, or maybe that I was just having a good day, but the race almost passed too quickly and there was never a point where it felt like it was dragging or taking a long time.

Leaving Birmingham, next stop London!

It’s all in the planning

Anyone who knows me knows I am the Queen of Planning and there’s nothing I love more than getting stuck into a good project, so I was in planning heaven with the GUCR project. I’d recced virtually the whole course so there were going to be no navigation mishaps on the day, I’d taken all the directions from the maps and put them on laminated lanyard cards (although two last minute diversions meant I was doing some last minute re-laminating on the Thursday before we travelled up to Birmingham!) and I had a spreadsheet for the entire race so my crew knew when to meet me and what food/drinks I needed at each crew spot. There’s always going to be things I can’t control in ultras (this time it was losing the sight in one eye!), but by making sure I had all the controllables under control, everything ran like clockwork for me and my crew.

It takes a village (or at least a dream team crew)

Tom has crewed me many times at 24 hour races and at Spartathlon so knows exactly what I need – I’m not the type of runner that needs to be motivated or cajoled, but it’s with the practical side of crewing where Tom, Chris and Rhianon came into their own. At every crew point him, Chris and Rhianon gave me new drinks bottles, passed me gels for the next section, let me dump all my rubbish on them, had a pot of custard already open for me that I ate in approximately 3 seconds, handed me baby wipes and then sent me on my merry way. Most crew stops I was in and out of in a couple of minutes, and even at the later stages when I needed a bit more sorting out, I never spent more than 5 minutes at a stop. It was pit stop level crewing and they were an absolute dream crew. Also there was no way Rhianon’s banners and outfit changes couldn’t fill you with joy as you ran along the canal!

Pit-stop crewing

Two’s company

I’m very much a solitary runner, I never run with a group or club, and only occasionally run with other people, so I had no issues with running GUCR on my own, and there’s very few people I’d want to see me in the latter stages of an ultra! However, in the final month before the race, two good friends offered to run with me, who I knew would be perfect company on the canal, so with them, plus Chris and Rhianon who were going to temporarily swap crewing for buddy running, I had company for virtually all of the race from mile 65 onwards.

Zoe N was a late addition to crew/buddy running and ran with me from miles 65-90.5 – I was feeling on top of the world so the miles absolutely flew by as we chatted and laughed our way along the canal, and I was having so much fun that for most of the time I forgot that I was in a race!

Canal fun with Zoe N

Then Chris took over and ran 17 miles with me. Chris was perfect company, he chatted when I wanted to chat and then at other times we just ran in comfortable silence. This was also the section where I started to lose the sight in my right eye so I was really struggling with my vision, and Chris took on the role of navigator, reading my directions and checking we were crossing the right bridges.

Rhianon is my dearest friend, and nobody lifts me up like Rhianon does, so she brought 5 miles of Rhianon sunshine and joy to the proceedings!

Only Rhianon can rock a pink tutu, OCC finishers gilet, DryRobe and flamingo headgear!

Finally, poor Zoe S had the short straw, getting up in the middle of the night to meet me 25 miles outside London to run the final stretch with me.  Zoe couldn’t have been a more perfect final buddy runner, she gently made sure I was still eating and kept me moving forward. At the detour off the canal at mile 138 she acted as my eyes and brain as otherwise I think I’d still be aimlessly wandering around west London trying to find my way back onto the canal! And she pushed me when I needed pushing to help me achieve my goal.

Zoe S deserves a medal for getting me to the finish!

For someone who normally likes her own company when she runs, the miles I shared with my four buddy runners couldn’t have been more perfect in their own different ways, and I will be eternally grateful to each of them.

Carbs are King

I know to run well I need to be taking on a minimum of 300 calories an hour. I can’t eat solid foods when I run so I use a mix of Mountain Fuel drinks, Recovery shakes, Jelly’s, custard and Maurten. I’d also been trialling taking more carbs on in training to see if my body could handle 90+g of carbs per hour vs the 70g I’ve previously taken. For about 26 hours I was taking on a minimum of 300 calories/90g of carbs every hour, in a mix of drinks, a gel every half an hour, and then custard or a recovery shake at every crew spot. In the final 4 hours I was struggling to keep liquids down, but as my nutrition had been spot on until then, I never felt I lacked energy and was still able to move well, and I put that down to having a really solid nutrition plan and the increased carbs.

One minute you can be having the race of your life

The first 110 miles were some of the best I’ve ever ran in a race, it almost felt too easy and I felt like I was skipping along the canal with the biggest smile on my face. I know to run a good ultra the secret is to start super easy (as a guide my starting pace was about 2:45 minutes a mile slower than my MP) and I think I was about 25th through the first checkpoint and then slowly moved up the field. I had a race plan for a sub 30 hour finish and at every crew point I was pretty much exactly on schedule. Even when we had a 1 mile diversion off the canal at mile 36, I was still only arriving at crew points a couple of minutes behind plan. My race plan got me to arrive at 100 miles in 18:15 hours and I actually arrived in 18:03 hours, but most importantly, I felt really good at 100 miles. I was feeling so good that I even started to think I could finish closer to 29 hours than 30 hours…..

High on canal life

…..and then the next minute things start to unravel

It was about mile 110 when I started to really struggle to run in the dark. I’m an early morning runner so spend half the year running with a head torch on so couldn’t understand why I was finding running in the dark so hard on this occasion. I couldn’t visualise clearly what was on the trail and kept kicking tree roots and rocks and was feeling really disorientated at times. My legs still felt good and had lots of running left in them, but because I couldn’t see properly I massively slowed down and I could see my sub 30 goal slipping away from me.

It was only when it started to get light that I realised I’d lost vision in one eye (which goes by the medical term of corneal edema). I have had this before at Bernau 24 hours, so I didn’t panic and knew it was only temporary, but I knew I wouldn’t get my vision back until I stopped running, so I was going to have to run the final 30 miles partially sighted and just hope I didn’t lose sight in the other eye!

As we got closer to London, the combination of it being light and the canal path becoming tarmac, meant I started to feel a bit more confident in my footing and I was able to pick the pace up a bit again.

If you really want to do something, you’ll find a way

I know running sub 30 hours at GUCR is just an arbitrary number, but as soon as I got my place confirmed in the ballot for GUCR, it was the goal I was striving for – up until this year only six women had ever run under 30 hours in the race’s 27 year history and I wanted to join that list.

Because I’d lost so much time overnight when I slowed down, I thought that sub 30 wasn’t going to happen and I convinced myself that a 30:xx finish would still be a decent result. There was another diversion off the canal path at mile 138 which added another 0.5 mile on, which doesn’t sound a lot in the scheme of 147 miles of running, but I knew I didn’t have any time to spare.

My brain was completely frazzled by this stage, but Zoe was being both my eyes and brain, and at 11:30am she told me I had 2.3 miles to go and I could get under 30 hours. That was all I needed to hear and I put my head down and just ran! My second to last mile was the fastest of the whole race at 8:29 pace – I figured it could go one of two ways, I’d either collapse 0.5 mile from the finish line or I’d go sub 30 – fortunately it was the latter or I’d probably still be laid on the GUC now!

I crossed the line in 29:50 hours for 2nd female/4th overall out of 98 starters, elated doesn’t even begin to describe it.

Overall I am absolutely delighted with my GUCR, apart from losing the sight in one eye, it was pretty much the perfect race I could have hoped for for the majority of the time. And whilst it would be easy to sit here and say I think I could have gone quicker if I hadn’t had the vision problems, I think the nature of ultras means you have to accept the cards you are dealt with on race day – it is very rare when you’re running for this amount of time, that everything is going to go perfectly, so it’s about how you deal with any challenges that are thrown at you. So much went right for me – my training, pacing, nutrition, running strong for so much of the race, a dream crew and buddy runners, that I am sat here with aching legs and trashed feet, feeling completely content and happy with my GUCR.

The biggest thank you to Keith and the volunteers – the race was everything I could have hoped for and more. I shall see you at KACR next year!

I cannot thank my crew and buddy runners enough for giving up their bank holiday weekends to help me along the canal – if you measure your life by the friends that you keep, then my life couldn’t be more full.

GUCR dream team

And final thank you to James Stewart for the superb coaching and helping bring even more joy to my running these past 19 months!

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