Advice on finishing The 145 from a multiple Grand Union Canal Race finisher
Written by Paul Ali.
Welcome to the Grand Union Canal Race, a well-regarded classic British ultramarathon event. If you are running this event for the first time then you are likely to have lots of questions about the event, the race experience and completing a long-distance race.
To help answer some of these questions, I have put together a list of tips based on my own personal experience (i.e. all my lessons learned). Hopefully, you may find some of these of use as you plan your journey from Gas Street to Little Venice in May.
Planning and preparing for the event is helpful, some suggested advice includes:
1. I will assume you have completed some training and are fit and ready for the event. You (and your crew) should have received and be familiar with the race instructions and rules of the event.
2. Race registration can take place the evening before the race (Friday) which means one less thing to do the next day. It’s also a good opportunity to meet up and socialise with other runners, crews and volunteers.
3. Book a local hotel to reduce your travel time in the morning and maximise your sleep the night before. The Premier Inn, Canal Side is a place I’ve used which is close-by but a little off the potentially ‘noisy at night’ high street in central Birmingham, other options are available. Getting some good sleep the week before is useful if you happen to be one of those people who gets very tired during the night leg.
4. Familiarise yourself with the maps, checkpoint distances and key navigation points in advance. I usually keep a very brief summary of any key notes (something I can carry in the palm of my hand) about me during the race.
5. Training and simulation. If you are fit and the training is going well then you are likely to feel more confident. If you have trained under race conditions (similar terrain, environment, worn the equipment, tested the food and hydration or even run parts of the route) then this will all help build your mental resilience.
6. Have a race plan but be flexible. You should have some idea of pacing, times and arrival points at checkpoints (particularly if you are meeting a crew or a buddy runner later in the race) but don’t worry if you need to adjust this if you’re way ahead of the plan (unlikely) or behind the plan (more likely).
7. Ensure you have prepared your kit and equipment including all mandatory items. If you have a crew then you have the luxury of packing anything and everything you may need. If you are unsupported then you may need to be a bit more selective. When packing your gear think about ease and accessibility during the race. Personally, I use sandwich freezer bags with things I can ‘grab and go’ (say some gels/powders or headtorches/batteries) and try to minimise time at a checkpoint. My general checklist of gear and equipment is as follows:
• Worn Running Gear (Shorts, Top, Base layer, Trainers – road shoes fine, Socks)
• Running Pack + Bottles
• Rain Jacket (weather dependent)
• Warm layer & hat/gloves (for the night)
• Headtorches x2 (have a decent spare just in case) & batteries (for the night)
• Snacks, Gels, S-caps, Energy Gels to keep you fuelled between CPs
• Wet wipes
• Music player
• Hat/Shades/Sun-cream (i.e. for sunny weather)
• Sandwich bags (good for picking up food on the go or carrying your rubbish until you dispose of it)
• Mobile Phone
• Breakfast (i.e. a porridge pot for the morning – now eaten hopefully)
• Warm clothes (for the end of the race, body temperature will drop when you stop)
• Extra Snacks, Gels, S-caps, Energy Gels/Powders to keep you fuelled between CPs
• Spare kit (i.e. Socks, Extra layer, Spare trainers)
• Blister kit (Plasters, Scissors, Compeed, Rock tape, Flannel to wipe feet etc)
• Vaseline/Sudocreme (for chaffing)
• More wet wipes
• Phone charger (for end of race)
8. Prevent chafing. Use some lube on those areas of friction before the race and keep applying it from time to time during the race.
9. Don’t try new things on race day. Use the kit/pacing/nutrition strategy that you have practiced and are comfortable with.
10. Whilst the race is long in distance at 145 miles, the time limit for the race is fairly generous at 45 hours which means you only need to sustain a brisk walking pace to complete the event within the cut offs. Remember, you have plenty of time.
11. You will have been provided with information and maps prior to the race and navigation for this race is reasonably straightforward as you are following the towpath with a canal next to you for 99% of the race. There are a small number of points I would highlight to runners unfamiliar with the route as follows:
a. 2.5 miles into the race there’s a left turn at an unnamed junction. Do not proceed straight ahead.
b. 43-44 miles Braunston. Follow the path as it steers to the right and avoid taking the Oxford Canal (left spur).
c. 45 miles approx. You come off the canal here for 1-1.5 miles before bearing right where the track splits off from the track path (which leads left) before re-joining the canal.
d. 62.5 miles Blisworth Tunnel. Another section when you come off the canal path and head up some steps and follow a road for 1-1.5 miles before heading down a track path and re-joining the canal.
e. 132 miles Bulls Bridge. Go over the bridge and take the left hand turn home about a mile before the Hamborough checkpoint and the final stretch.
12. A change of top or clothes or socks or shoes can make you feel better.
13. You can hire a British Waterways key which gives you access to taps at canals. This can be a real helper on hot days between checkpoints.
14. Hydration and nutrition are very much dependent on your own personal tastes and what you have practiced eating and drinking during training. The simple rule of thumb is to eat and drink little and often from the start of the race to ensure there’s a constant influx of energy into your system. Unsupported runners can avail themselves of food and snacks at checkpoints whilst supported runners (i.e. you are crewed) should bring their own supplies but can take drinks. I pack a few extra snacks of my personal favourite food items plus gels & energy powders in my kit bag to grab them at each checkpoint to supplement the choices offered during the race.
15. Pacing wise. Start conservatively and run at an easy pace. The greatest success comes from simply jogging/running as much of the distance you can. The more you stop, slow, walk or march the longer it takes you to get to the end. The phrase “time in the bank” should never be mentioned.
16. There are a few cafes and shops on route which you can use as needed and can act as a nice pick me up. The small shop that sells cold cans of drink and ice-cream at Braunston Marina (43-44 miles) is a good example of this.
17. Blister management. If you are one of these people who are susceptible to blisters then you need to think about foot preparation before the race such as; removing calluses, cream/softening the feet; using toe-socks; taping; powder; lubrication; sock and shoe choices. During the race, the trick is to try and reduce one of the heat, friction and moisture elements to minimise the risk of blisters. If you do suffer then will need to ensure you have a blister kit available to deal with any hotspots as they occur depending on their severity, as untreated (and with 145 miles distance to cover) they could hamper your race.
18. Sleep Deprivation. This can affect people differently and there are many techniques I have tried to use to keep myself alert during the night including; banking sleep beforehand; pro-plus/caffeine tablets; coffee/drinks; practicing running at night; splashing water on the face; a mid-race power-nap; music; conversation or keeping my torch on a high setting to create more light. Find out what works for you in these circumstances to get you through those drowsy moments at night until you get that little lift when the sun comes out the next day. Try not to fall into the canal.
19. A buddy runner is permitted from 65 miles and can offer you some much needed company for the second half of the race. You can swap buddy runners as long as you only have 1 at a time.
20. Have a checkpoint plan. When you approach a Checkpoint mentally rehearse what you need to do, do it and then move out to minimise time sitting around. If you tend to forget things in the middle of the night, keep a small list with you on the 2 or 3 things you need to do. If you need to stop to give your feet a break for 5 minutes, then try and stick to the 5 minutes. You are at risk of disqualification if you stay for more than 40 minutes.
21. Remember the weather. It can be hot during the day and cold at night on the canal and there have been years where the rain has been ‘biblical’. Prepare your kit and equipment so that you have planned responses to questions such as; what if it rains heavily; what if it’s very cold at night and what if it’s really warm during the day? Having a crew is a tremendous help for a quick response. If you are unsupported, you need to gauge the conditions and carry what you might need for the next leg until you can access your kit bag at the next available checkpoint.
22. Get emotionally invested in the race. There was a great quote I once read which said “pessimism is a runner’s top mental roadblock”, the point being that negativity can lead to self-defeating behaviours. Get your head in the game from the start and start to build that personal belief that you can do this.
23. Expect the unexpected. Things may happen during the race which don’t go to plan. You might miss a turn, miss a crew point, forget your good luck charm, drop your maps. Don’t let the little things bother you and deal with other issues as they occur.
24. Check in with yourself. Ask yourself how you are feeling and check your running form from time to time and adjust this where necessary.
25. Worry about your own race. It’s easy to get caught up in the hype of the race or trying to match someone else’s pace or tactics. Focus on your own plan and goals and ignore outside influences you can’t control or which may bring you down.
26. Don’t leave things too late. Drink before you are thirsty, eat before you get hungry, attend to the blister before it’s the size of an egg. It’s harder to play catch-up.
27. What happens when your mind seems to wander and you lose focus? Using distraction techniques may help such as; conversation; music; a mental puzzle or just counting to distract your mind from negative thoughts or motivate with something like running to the next landmark you spot or person you see ahead. Occupy your mind as much as you can. This is where your buddy runner starts to earn their pay.
28. What happens when you hit those low moments? Reframing your thoughts is a phrase used to describe the process of turning negative thoughts into positive ones. Some simple examples of this (and I would recommend wider reading on the subject) includes; combating emotion with facts, focus on things rather than letting the mind drift, self-talk or encouragement, creating a positive attitude (smile, talk, laugh, make a joke) or using personal mantras to keep you going.
29. What happens when everything starts to feel overwhelming? You could try compartmentalisation which means breaking everything down into smaller and simpler steps and focusing on these goals. 145 miles of canal path can seem over-whelming but getting 10 miles to the next checkpoint seems more achievable and getting to a point a mile ahead even more achievable. Break the race down in your mind to the next short goal and then the next one and so on. Give yourself little rewards for achieving small goals.
30. What happens when things start to unravel? Analyse the issue by examining and asking yourself what you need to do to address it. Fuelling or hydration is probably the answer to 50% of these questions. Keep calm and carry on.
31. Use all the crews. Everyone helps each other out during the race. From the race volunteers, to other runners’ crews and other runners. The one over-riding aim for the race is to try and get everyone to the finish line. If you need something from someone, there’s no harm in asking. Batteries run-out unexpectedly, could a crew lend you one until the next Checkpoint until you can get a spare?
32. Relentless forward progress. Use a run/walk plan if you wish but try and be disciplined with this. Deathmarch if you need to. Few people run the entire race.
33. Run with a smile on your face and enjoy the experience.
Good luck to everyone, I wish you all the best on your race.