Saturday, 2 June 2018

The Grand Union Canal Race 2018 Race Report

I blame the salesman, all I wanted was a pair of trainers to help me start running and lose the excess weight. At the time I was working full time, going to Uni at night, and my eldest daughter Bella was about to be born, the last thing on my mind entering a race. This was around 2007, and the salesman was Ryan Spencer. Ryan started telling me about his ultra-running and I was blown away when I heard he’d completed the Grand Union Canal race (GUCR). What?  145 miles? Is that even possible?

Anyway, it wasn’t until 2008 that I completed my first 10k race and I fell in love with the sport. I have followed the Grand Union Canal race ever since, and two years ago I was brave enough to have my first go. Unfortunately, a tummy bug hit our house, affecting all of us and it didn’t allow me to complete the GUCR. I ran to 20 miles, then walked and vomited until 50 miles, and then decided that it wouldn’t be safe to carry on. Last year I was back at GUCR as a volunteer, and in 2018 I was lucky enough to get a place again and have the chance to complete what I had started two years ago.

New season…

It is been an exciting new year for me and my girls. I got a new job in Cornwall and life was about to turn upside down. My last race in September 2017 was the Self Transcendence 24hr Track Race, and then October was my end-of-season break, with training resuming in November  with endless trips to Penzance to find somewhere for us to live. I started my job in the New Year and without somewhere suitable for us to live I rented a little AirBnB house in Hayle and then commuted almost every weekend back to Bedfordshire to see my family. I made the most of life as a ‘single man’ on Mon-Fri and ran lots in the evenings.

By the end of March we exchanged on a new property in Newlyn and I was reunited with my family. Work was now a mere 2 miles away and my frequency and mileage increased with running to and from work and by adding little ‘detours’ every day. My new running routes are simply stunning and it is always a pleasure to put my running shoes on. I’m totally in love with Cornwall, if you couldn’t tell!

Suddenly race day had arrived, I felt fit and strong without any injuries and ready to start this beast.

The Race…

It is race morning, I said goodbye to Grumpy Uncle Martin at the hotel and walked to the race start, half a mile away in Gas Street, Birmingham. Then we were off, about 100 of us, most of the first 30 miles were uneventful, with the weather perfect, cool and overcast.  I chatted to my friend Iain quite a bit and made it to 30 miles in 4h57 which was perfect. I mentioned to Iain how much I didn’t enjoy the first 30 miles of any race as I liked the drama and emotions you go through in the later stages. There would be plenty of drama in the many hours to come…I wish I’d kept my mouth shut.

Feeling great arriving at CP2 around 22 miles.
 After leaving the aid station at mile 36, the sun was out and the temperatures began to soar. On the approach to the 50 mile mark I was still feeling ok and making good progress. Steve Snow now caught up with me and we shared the next 3 miles together, that was Steve’s first GUCR and he had the added motivation of running to raise money for Prostate Cancer UK, bearing in mind his dad is currently going through a tough time with treatment. We even made a really quick stop at a canal shop, and with the sunshine now really strong, I treated myself to a Solero and a coke.

We carried on towards The Heart of England checkpoint at mile 53 together and on the approach Steve left me behind as I had started walking too much. By the time I arrived at the CP, Steve had already left. I didn’t feel great; I had some orange squash, a couple of plums, a mandarin and soaked my hat in cold water. I left and I walked and walked for miles, feeling sorry for myself and wishing my luck would turn soon; that is ultra-running for you, full of highs and lows. Every time I started to run the simple action of my t-shirt rubbing on my stomach would cause me huge discomfort and my legs turned to jelly. After 6 or 7 miles of that I forced myself to be sick, it did help a bit but I didn’t feel like eating anything, I simply took little sips of water mixed with salt sticks.

The afternoon sun was starting to take its toll.

Eventually I heard a familiar voice and it was my ultra-runner friend Emily who had caught up with me. I was really pleased to see her and I just wished I could feel better. I explained my problems and she offered me Ginger Beer to help me settle my stomach. A few years back, my mum had passed away a few days before a big race and Emily was great at picking up my mojo to finish that race. Here she was to save me again. The ginger beer worked a treat and I got a little more energy, then she encouraged me to run a little and it worked. Amen to Emily! I owe you a beer or two!!

We continued together to Stoke Bruerne and with the end of the afternoon the temperature dropped. Emily was making a stop to meet her crew and I decide to sit down in the curry house by the canal to have a Coke with lots of ice.  Once I left I met my friends Danielle and Alan, who travelled from Leighton Buzzard to cheer me on, and guess what, they had some ginger beer and a chicken wrap for me! The ultra-running Gods were now on my side! I caught up with Emily again and we ran together with her buddy runner to the checkpoint at mile 70. Mark Haynes was volunteering there and I got a lovely man hug and he made me a lovely sugary cup of tea and I had that with my chicken wrap.

It was a lovely evening and I began to feel stronger and stronger. I was eating the miles now into Wolverton and Milton Keynes and I looking forward to see my buddy runner Martin whom I left in the hotel in Birmingham that morning. I’m not sure Martin was so pleased though, as he was probably wondering what was taking so long to get to him. On my way to the next aid station a lovely man on a barge kindly offered the most delicious peach, and then Mich Hardie who was crewing for Russ supplied me with Coke. After a really good spell all the way through Milton Keynes I started to fade a bit. By then my friends Colin, Amy and Anna from Leighton Buzzard were waiting at the canal to cheer me on, it was lovely to see them and get some well needed hugs. Now it was pitch black and with my headtorch on I made it to the Bletchley aid station, 84 miles in. Glyn was working there; he made me some pasta and a lovely cup of tea and encouraged me with pep talk. Martin had been waiting for me for hours but didn’t seem too grumpy. As we left towards Leighton Buzzard we could see the storm which was about to hit us. We marched towards the Three Locks where my friends Eve and Chris had been waiting with flat Coke, then my guitar teacher Jeff appeared out of nowhere to also cheer me on. You really can’t underestimate the powers of a hug and smile during an ultra. Thanks guys!!!  As we left them it started raining, which very quickly turned into an electrical storm. I put my waterproof jacket on and as we passed Leighton Buzzard my friend Dave was waiting for us under a bridge. Dave wished us luck and asked us to be careful. What a storm that was, constant lightning turned night into day, and the rain turned the towpath into a river, we might as well have jumped in the canal for a swim. To be honest the lightning was scaring the shit out me, I was very worried that I would be hit by one. The rain however felt divine, as I pressed my drenched waterproof jacket all over my body, it provided a welcoming relief from the previous afternoon’s sunshine.

With Colin Bradley in Milton Keynes.

The storm continued and my legs were again on fire. I ran strong all the way to Tring for the 100-mile checkpoint. I arrived there in good spirits in roughly 21h30; Mark Haynes was there again and made me more sugary tea whilst the legendary race director Dick offered me some beans with cheese. The beans went down a treat and Martin and I were soon on our way to London with 45 miles to go. Our next checkpoint at 120 miles, came with the promise of bacon sandwiches waiting for us there.

100 miles done 45 to go.

As we ran it got light quickly, my jacket dried, my headtorch was put away and we kept marching on, with Martin making sure I didn’t walk for too long. We crossed the M25, which is a milestone into this race, meaning that you are now into Greater London and going through Watford. Ryan (the bastard who sold me my first pair of trainers and told me about GUCR back in 2007) was waiting for me with his partner Tanya. They had perfect sticks of watermelon for us that just melted in my mouth. I thanked them and mentioned that my running along canals career was over. Eventually Martin and I arrived at the checkpoint and they had the much anticipated bacon sandwiches!! Unfortunately I could not manage to eat the bread; it would simply not go down my throat. So I ate the bacon and asked for some more beans with cheese.  I could see Martin’s annoyance at me taking too long, but I had to make sure I ate something more substantial. At the CP we had caught up with Paul Ali, who was busy cutting bits off his blistered feet.

Watermelon sticks were out of this world!

We left and it got hotter and hotter….we ran, we walked, we ran, and we walked, but we kept putting one foot in front of the other. I have to admit that Martin encouraged me to run a lot more than I really wanted to. We arrived at the last checkpoint at 133 miles and all I could stomach was some Coke and a mandarin, Duncan was working there and he wished us luck for the final 12 miles. The heat was intense now but I ran more than I expected and time went past quickly with my emotions running high.

With only half a mile to the finish, I spotted a runner in the distance and told Martin let’s catch him and he simply said go for it, you’re the one racing. I upped my pace and went for that last kick, as I got closer I realised it was Steve Snow whom I had shared a few miles with the day before. I felt a bit bad but Steve will forgive me I’m sure, I’m competitive and this was a race after all! Little Venice was within sight! Since hearing about this race in 2007, I had finally crossed the finish line in 33h10min and in 12th place. Keith Godden put a medal around my neck and congratulated me on my finish.

Job done!
Steve arrived a minute later with Martin just behind him.

Didn’t that first beer tasted amazing after four weeks of no drinking, in fact the first pint didn’t even touch the sides, I enjoyed the second one more and by the third beer I was falling asleep! 

Super thanks to all the volunteers and the race director for your time and an immaculate event. Thanks to all my friends that made the effort to come out to say hello on the course throughout the weekend. Thanks to Iain and Steve for the great company. Super thanks to Emily for rescuing me from that bad patch at mile 60 and special thanks Martin for running the last 62 miles with me, the encouragement and banter were superb. Obviously I couldn’t do any of these races without the support and tolerance of my wife and daughters, so  a big thank you to them for putting up with me.

Some positives from the GUCR, I didn’t suffer from any chaffing whatsoever, which is a first, and my feet were still in great shape after the storm at night.

The month of June is for recovery but I’ll be resuming normal training again in July. My next race is the mighty 153-miler in Greece, the Spartathlon where I will join my Brazilian team mates again. I really can’t wait!

But before I go…

The human body is simply amazing and when we put our minds into doing something it is incredible what we can achieve. But surely you would think that someone with cancer would not be able to run 145-miles, but you would be wrong!!

This weekend, a great friend of mine, Mark Thornberry also raced the GUCR. Mark was diagnosed just over year ago with terminal liver cancer...  Instead of wallowing, Mark has continued running whenever he could, in between treatments and interventions. I have no words to describe how astonishing it was to witness Mark complete the GUCR after 40+ hours of running. What a man, I’m incredibly lucky and honoured to call this brave man my friend; it seems that not every super hero wears a cape!

Fuck you Cancer!

Mark is combining his love for long distance running to help him stay alive and to also raise essential funds for Kings College Hospital, who have been so good to him and his family. Read Mark’s story here and dig deep for this truly worthwhile cause!


  1. Great stuff Rod. That watermelon looked the goods. I remember your love for chicken wraps during ultras. You got through the tuff parts and could even dig for a strong finish. You looked bright eyed all the way.

    1. Thanks Jim, great memories from a tough weekend. All worth it though.

  2. This post made me cry. Amazing job. Well done!!

  3. Great race report Rod. I had no idea this was your first GUCR finish. I swear you've run this race a tonne of times! Feels likes you've been on the scene forever (in a good way!) Wow SPARTA again. Pretty jealous of that. I'd love (I think) to run this one. Once I have my marathon itch sorted perhaps I'll turn my attention back to ultras.

    1. Looking forward to catching up here in Cornwall StuDisco.

  4. Brilliant effort and achievement Rod! We're all super proud to be able to say "hey, I know that guy". Keep it up and please continue to share your stories, they're an inspiration to us all. Love Steve, Emma, Arthur & Ivy (Turkey 2017)

    1. Thanks guys, I've been dreaming about that race for years, so great to finally do it.

  5. Really impressive rod, congratulations bud, Steve b

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