The Story of One of the Longest, Oldest UK Ultras
I am just standing there, staring down at the moon’s perfect reflection in the canal. It is a clear night and getting colder. There isn’t a cloud in the sky and no noise other than the shuffling of boxes between vans. There is a pub just opposite us but it’s closed. It’s 1am now and its patrons and owners have retired for the night. As have the people who live in the nearby boats. They are all in bed now. I don’t know where I am sleeping tonight. I don’t even know if I am sleeping tonight.
I break away from the chatter and get distracted by my own thoughts or, rather, thought. It’s hard to have more than one at a time at this stage. I tried to sum up what it feels like on a Saturday night to be on a canal towpath just outside of Tring, cold and tired, not knowing when or where or if sleep is coming, eyes hurting from being blinded by head-torches, wet feet, and a mouth that feels like a badger’s arse. I am surrounded by others who are here just like I am, for the same reasons I am and I try to pick a word that describes all of this.
The word I go for is ‘normal’.
This then starts off another sequence in my head. Why is this normal? When did this become normal? Why would being wrapped up in bed at home with my wife in West London feel abnormal tonight? What happened in my life that made this normal?
But I have to put that on hold for a moment because James has just arrived. He is the race leader at this 100 mile point and looking pretty fresh. He turns around and starts fiddling around in his shorts as the crew make calculations about his next movements. He mumbles like a drunk to his very tired support crew who seem to correctly interpret his noises as “please give me some of those cherry tomatoes and a cup of beans”. It’s like a mother who can tell from the facial expression of her baby that it needs winding. The Grand Union Canal Race has long been established as ‘the’ classic British ultra running endurance event.
First staged over twenty years ago, the event became known as the longest, toughest, non-stop running race in the UK (although other events have since claimed these titles). The race itself typically sees around 100 competitors run from the centre of Birmingham starting at 6am on the Saturday morning on the last bank holiday weekend in May.
Each runner aims to travel the 145-mile length of the Grand Union Canal non-stop, finishing at Little Venice in the centre of London within a time limit of 45 hours. With 100-mile events in the UK only really taking off in the past few years, having successfully hosted a 145-mile event for so long is a testament to the skill, effort, planning and commitment of all the organisers, volunteers and helpers involved in this event.
The Grand Union Canal Race is synonymous with Dick Kearn, the plain-speaking race director who ran the event himself in 1993 (finishing in 32hrs 50mins). Dick has been at the helm for the past two decades as well as being involved in the organization of other races including the Thames Ring, Ridgeway Challenge and the Liverpool to Leeds Canal Race.
But why is the event so well regarded? There are several reasons.
Firstly, it has attracted a wide range of ultramarathon runners of all levels of experience, with names of current GB athletes like Pat Robbins (five times winner), Dan Lawson (2015 winner and course record holder), Robbie Britton and Debbie Martin-Consani (2012 winner and ladies course record holder) joining other renowned runners like Mimi Anderson, who in 2013 decided to run from London to Birmingham before the race… and then back again.
However, these names are only part of the story. Many of the runners return time and time again to complete this arduous challenge. Whilst I (Paul) have taken part and completed the event five times, I still have a long way to go to catch up with runners like Martin Illot who has nine GUCR finishes, or participate as often as the likes of Peter Johnson, John Poole, Christian Hottas or even Rajeev Patel who flies in from the US to participate on a regular basis. Many people who have taken part have their own stories about what the race means to them and their own personal anecdotes.
Runners enter the event with personal aims and goals, and those stories unfold as the race progresses with runners running, walking, shuffling, pausing, then picking themselves up and continuing. Some make it to the end, others do not. With a race of this distance the finish rate is often 50% or less.
This became normal to me on a Sunday morning in 2008 and I burst into tears somewhere in Hayes surrounded by factories and goose shit. How does running 145 miles on a canal or watching people run 145 miles on a canal become normal?
Let me explain.
Back in 1993 the British Waterways opened the Grand Union Canal Walk. Dick Kearn and a couple of friends thought it would be a good idea to run the entire thing, from Birmingham to London. The UK does not have a Grand Canyon. It does not have a Sahara Desert. It does not have an Amazon river or a Himalayan mountain range. What it does have is a 10 -feet-wide, two-feet-deep and 145-mile-long industrial wonder that is just as tough to run along.
We all know that the Western States 100 started with a lame horse, Comrades started to commemorate those who were lost in a war, while the Spartathlon started 2,500 years ago in order to end a war. The Grand Union Canal Race started with the opening that no-one turned up to. Its beginnings might not be the material for a Hollywood blockbuster but the stories collected alongside this knee-deep long puddle would certainly be worthy of a book.
A good race director gets the basics right: the food, the water, the route, the medals. A great race director might add a sense of occasion, a buzz about a race, a dash of social frenzy and fun. I think the best race directors understand that they are not really organising a race, or rather that is the means to a greater end. They are setting up an arena for ordinary people to realise their dreams. Dreams they don’t even know they had yet. These events are opportunities to grow, where you realise you’re capable of so much more than you ever thought you could be. A legendary race isn’t a bunch of people heading from A to B, but an event that expands human potential and happiness.
I’m going to put it out there, I think Dick has done this better than anyone else in the UK.
There are a number of people who have also worked tirelessly year after year supporting the race from the likes of Jan Kearn who manages the helpline for the full 45 hours, to people like Wayne, Ian and Joan who spend all weekend transporting runners’ drop bags along the 145-mile route, the wonderfully supportive Henk who takes great delight in collecting runners who have decided to drop from the race. These familiar names, these characters, give up their own time year after year to support the race and become a familiar part of the race themselves.
When runners aren’t participating in the event they invariably offer to help out. How many events would you see a previous winner turning up the next year to help move your drop bag along the route?
The event has developed a real community spirit, where everyone from fellow runners, crews, supporters or just followers of the race help, encourage and support each other with the desire to see every runner to the finish. Race day feels like turning up to meet your family who you haven’t seen for several months.
The race has a wonderfully British, traditional feel. It’s not an event which needs to advertise or promote itself, the runners and the community does that for them. With only 100 or so runners each year, the event has been over-subscribed resulting in a ballot being organised each year with typically 200+ names in the hat for these places.
Finally, the run itself. Completing 145 miles on foot non-stop is a tough challenge. The route passes through a mixture of British countryside, canal side pubs, pleasant canal paths, towns, villages towards the urban outskirts of London and into the centre. Some of the route is pleasant and scenic, unfortunately some of the route is not. The event is well known amongst the many barge owners who travel or holiday along the Grand Union Canal at that time of year with lots of support and encouragement offered by those in the know. Those who first learn what the runners are up to on the first day are often incredulous and follow up with the question “You are going… how far?” The comments on the second day from people who have witnessed many people on the canal seem to be more along the lines of “You’re doing that Birmingham to London walk, aren’t you?” as runners generally start to tire and the pace slows.
The route is generally flat. Some people like this, others don’t as you are using the same muscle sets all of the time. The distances between checkpoints can be long, lonely and arduous with the killer leg between 100 miles and Springwell Lock at 120 miles. The weather can be a significant factor as those who experienced the heavy rain in 2012 will attest to.
I don’t know whether Dick realised as he set out from Gas Street with just two others in 1993, whether he realised that in future years more than 100 would be regularly trying their luck. As he ran down through the veins of England’s second city, he would have skilfully avoided the rope post that Brendan Mason was to trip over in 2013, puncturing a lung and forcing him out of the race and onto a train back to his home in Beijing.
The sun was probably shining as he crossed the marathon threshold, the point where many runners dare not tread and the point where Debbie Martin-Consani was, in 2012, to fall in, ruining her iPod but not stopping her from being the first and only woman to win the race outright.
The heart of England could be the heart of this race, after 53 miles where things start to get very real.
Navigation Bridge must have looked fairly anonymous as he passed over it towards half way in the race. 20+ years later it has become the threshold into the abyss. Most runners here will be pushed into calling it a day, because it is a day for most. It is likely you are here having had a hard time, and now is the moment of truth, do you bank your hard time thus far or are you willing to risk having an absolutely miserable time or a chance of euphoria? Do you step through that bridge and into the darkness?
Milton Keynes would have looked the same, built after the canal had had its day such that it became a garden feature.
He would have reached Grand Junction Arms at around 2 in the morning, and crossed the marathon distance somewhere in Warwickshire, Leamington Spa, where friendships have been forged in the night, a mutual interest in finishing the race and getting the hell out of Hemel…
When it came to becoming race director, Dick was keen to ensure that this race could be tackled by people of different levels of ability and experience, and it wasn’t just a race for “elite” runners. The distance is long but the cut-off times are generous compared with other events of a similar distance. In fact Richard McChesney, a race walker, completed the event this year in approximately 44 hours which proves this point.
On the start line of this year’s event, it was sad to hear Dick Kearn announcing his intention to step down from organising the race and I am sure that many runners who have participated over the years would like to thank Dick (and his wife Jan) for their sterling work in hosting races and supporting the ultra running community for the past two decades. Their hard work, time, effort, patience, humour and support is very much appreciated by all those who have helped out or participated in the event, and this has undoubtedly had an impact on the runners, from an amusing anecdote, an ultra tale or a positive emotion from completing a worthy challenge.
I like to imagine the stories that must have been born on this canal, the families that lived here and traded 100s of years ago, legging through the tunnels, the pubs filled with workmen, resting from a day of industry.
However I really like to think about the runners’ stories of the past 20 years. Every mile has a tale, every lock and bridge has some meaning to someone, triggering a memory and emotion that takes them back to a time when they did something special. Being able to draw on these memories makes a person more resilient, more industrial, more capable of rising to future challenges, just like the canal did for England in 1800.