The Grand Union Canal Race is a race from Birmingham to London, predominantly along the
towpath of the Grand Union Canal, and is 148 miles (or 145 canal miles!) long. It’s an iconic race in
the ultra running world and attracts people from all over the UK and Europe. I first heard of it in
2015, raced it in 2016 and promptly fell in love with it – a long, flat race sounds about as dull as you
can get however it is anything but – the organisation is very “old school”, very low – key and friendly
and the race start is always filled with the most eclectic group of runners you could imagine.
There’s also something wonderful about a journey up the canal as well, it’s a snapshot into every
facet of life along the waterway and tells a real story.
I achieved a finish time of 32 hrs 05 in 2016 and since then have also run the two other canal
races in the series, measuring 145 miles and 130 miles respectively (and managing to place first
female in each). Training leading up to this year’s race had gone well although I had been having
slight problems with what I thought was an injury to my abdominals, but which turned out to
originate from my hip.
98 runners gathered in the wee small hours in Gas Street Basin, Birmingham on Saturday the 26th
of May, greeting old friends, discussing tactics and feeling horribly nervous and pensive (me!) and
excited (most other people!). I had been planning on a finish time of sub 31 hours this year,
perhaps a little faster, but the weather was forecast to be very hot by day and then with a severe
weather warning for thunderstorms, particularly around the Milton Keynes area, by night so I was
busy revising my plans in my head and aiming for a finish time of around 32 hours again – meaning
a steadier pace than I had planned and having the will to stick to it!!
Soon 0600 came around and the runners were given our usual warnings about NSAID use
(don’t!!!), hospitalisation (not a good plan) and helping each other out if needed. We were set off in
the quietest of manners as per usual using Dick Kearn’s “legendary high tech timepiece” – ie a
kitchen clock – and that was that. I turned on my tracker – which turned out to be faulty and had me
either stopped or travelling at 1mph, all in the beautiful surroundings of the Brecon Beacons- and
then I set off, chatting with a few runners I knew, being careful to moderate my pace, stay nice and
relaxed, avoid knocking myself out on low bridges (no one did this year – a first!) and dodging the
exceedingly angry geese who were hissing their disapproval as we passed.
After about 4 miles or so a familiar pull across my abs started – not a problem, noted it and then
carried on. Only the familiar pull altered my gait which was to prove really unfortunate.
The early murk cleared and the day emerged, hot, clear and sunny – a beautiful day for running,
sometimes alone, sometimes in the company of others. My pace was cautious but reasonable and
I was yo – yoing with the eventual 1st placed lady back and forth for a little while. I went through the
first 25 miles in 04:07, and 50 miles in 09:20. My hip / abs were hurting, but just a constant dull
pain, I was enjoying the hot day, stopping at canal taps along the way to douse my head in
beautifully cold water and a total stranger even chased me down the canal at a set of locks just as
I was really feeling the heat to give me a Calippo….life was good!!! I had my hydration and nutrition
sorted and my feet and stomach were in fine fettle, as were my spirits.
As the sun went down and the air cooled the running became easier and I rather like running by
the light of my head torch – it’s another world and one that I find very calming after all the activity of
At around midnight I began to notice the sky flashing in the distance, a strange orange colour, and
vaguely remembered that I wasn’t too far from Milton Keynes and thought that perhaps the
weather forecast was going to be spot on. It was…..just past Milton Keynes at about 0130hrs I ran
into absolutely torrential rain, amazing light shows and thunder cracking and rumbling overhead. A
quick stop under a bridge saw my waterproof jacket brought out of my race vest and put on – and
on I ran. I was running alongside two other people at this point; one who ducked every time a
lightning bolt split the sky (I was accused of being a voice of doom for pointing out that ducking
wouldn’t save their life….) and one who stated that their worst nightmare would be to step on any
of the enormous population of frogs which had emerged into the river formerly known as the
towpath. It’s the small things that are amusing and we at least had a good laugh as we tried to
ignore the crunching noise of all the snails we were trampling underfoot….
Anyway….onto that altered gait and hip pain. The altered gait and constant immersion in water of
my feet lead to blisters I believe as I never suffer from them usually – which altered my gait some
more. Still I was making fairly good progress and got to the 100 mile point in 21hrs and 21 minutes.
However I was becoming aware that the difference in my gait was aggravating my back (long story
short is that I broke it in an accident and have been left with a prolapsed disc and nerve damage
etc) and I was starting to get shooting pains into my buttocks and down my legs; I was praying that
it wouldn’t get any worse as my luck had always held in long races and it had never let me down.
However I knew I was going to have to slow my pace a little and not tempt fate too much. I
reached 114 miles in 25:20 and then my feared outcome materialised – my back became
aggravated enough to cause muscle weakness in my legs and loss of function; in short pain limited
my movement a little but the main factor was in my legs not doing as my head desired. I held it
together, calmed down, tried to keep moving on as best I could whilst rationalising the situation –
but after it took me 23 minutes for the next mile and a whopping 47 (!!!!) for the one after I knew
that realistically it was over. I had 12 hours until CP8 which I was approaching shut so was well
inside the cut off and I had 18.5 hours until the final race cut off but knew that I was going to have
to have my first ever DNF at any race – even if I did somehow manage to drag some kind of a
finish out the damage to myself that I was risking was too great.
So 26 hours and 32 minutes after leaving Gas Street Basin I sat down on a lock gate, called my
husband (another race first, he would have known instantly that something was wrong) to tell him
that I was finished and then with a lump in my throat of sheer frustration and disappointment I
called Race HQ and notified them that I was a DNF. I sat at CP8 discussing my decision with
everyone, receiving a mixture of good natured banter and a great sausage sandwich (thanks
Margo!!!) with a sprinkling of sympathy. I felt deflated and upset that my race had ended this way,
however also proud that I had been smart enough to think of my health for once, rather than
having to be physically dragged from the course as would probably have been the case a few
years ago). I have gone over and over the race and my decision in the week following it and I am
still certain that it was the only course of action that I could have taken which does go a long way
to settling it with myself.
The final word has to go to a runner who was volunteering at the checkpoint where I dropped and
who I respect very much….. “It’s only running”. And he’s right.