Time Moves Differently: a report from the 145 mile Grand Union Canal Race
Editor’s note: This piece was written by one of the toughest people I know, and it’s one of the best race reports I’ve read. Jen (aka Wrigleygirl) takes us deeply into the experience of running 145 miles. Jen has run around 80 marathons and ultramarathons and has also run 128.13 miles in 24 hours. The report is long (appropriately for the distance,) but make sure you have your schedule cleared before you start reading – because you won’t stop. Thanks to her for allowing me to publish this!
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Friday night before the race it is very cold and extremely windy, but the temps and conditions on Saturday are perfect. The race starts in the center of Birmingham. I've been promised drunks spilling out from the bars at 6 am, but someone has lied and the drunks fail to do their part. I'm disappointed.
The paths are all cobblestone, and on any incline or decline every third one is raised, presumably for traction when it is wet, or to trip klutzy runners. I was warned about these earlier, and I'm especially careful. I walk up all the bridges. I fail to see the point in running inclines in the first mile of a 145 mile race. There are a bunch of bridges, but more often than not we are running below them, along extremely narrow paths alongside the canal. These were obviously built in the Middle Ages when everyone was four feet tall. Every 400m I have to fold myself in half and run single-file through a narrow opening while trying not to trip on cobblestones.
Despite extremely conservative pacing, I am the first woman until about a mile and a half when a German woman passes me. With 143.5 miles to go, this throws me into a full blown panic. I am the worst racer ever. This always happens. Two more women pass and I tell myself to let them go. I end up behind them and we enter an area with just woods and the canal. The women in front of me talk more than two women have ever talked in the history of woman kind. I don't know how they hear each other or can breathe. They should be on the British women's Olympic talking team. When a woman can astonish me with talking, you have really got something there. Good. Let them wear themselves out. I'm saving my energy for the race.
They eventually duck out to pee. I have had to pee for miles and miles now. The plan is to wait until I can't anymore, and then head into the woods. A few miles later it can't wait anymore and I duck in on one of the narrow singletrack paths that have been made. It opens up into a collection of empty Carling and Kronenbourg cans like I have never imagined in my life. I understand the little paths now. I'm relieved to pee but only a little trickle comes out. Wtf?
I run on. The women that I dropped when they went to the bathroom are now in front of me, and I still have to pee like mad.
I ignore it and blow through the aid station at 10.7 miles. I am "unsupported" aka I don't have a crew, so I paid a little more (still crazy cheap, regular entrance to this race was $45), so that the race would provide me with food at a few checkpoints as well as haul two small drop bags to each of the nine aid stations so I can replenish Gu, have warm and dry clothes, headlamp/sunglasses, my drink mix for my hydration pack (half Perpetuem/half Gatorade), and a few other things. I am perfectly on my targeted time. I have made a pace band for 32 hours, I wanted 31 hours pre injury, and I set a public goal of 35 hours, only because people keep telling me that this race is so much harder than it appears on paper.
|This is the canal. You can read more about it here.|
That's the thing about ultras. They always are. Look at paces and you wonder what the hell people are doing that takes them so long, then do it yourself and you understand that time moves differently during a long race. It doesn't make sense, and I can't explain it to non-ultrarunners. I don't understand myself. I end up using a similar plan as I use for my 24 hour races. After 2.5 hours I ran for 26 minutes and walked for 4. It pays off down the road because the race is broken up into manageable chunks and the body loves the change in gait. During the stretch between the first aid station and the aid station at 22.5 I feel a blister forming. Crap. 99% of the time I would let it go. 100% of the time I’m not running 145 miles. I stop at the aid station. New Gu packets (I have been a rock star with taking a Gu exactly every 40 mins), mix up more drink (I've made it too weak again, and I worry about calories), get rid of garbage, drink some Coke which I despise but it works, get out a handkerchief which gets soaked with cold water because it is starting to get toasty out, and tend to my feet. My trusty go-to race socks have two holes in them. Fuck. I can't find the other pair just like them. I go to higher socks and bandage and body glide the feet up. Back to running.
There is a major problem. I have had to urinate so badly that it is supremely uncomfortable to run. My lower abdomen is distended and it is hard and painful to the touch. My bladder is completely full, but every time I stop to pee I only get out a trickle. It never stops feeling like I have to piss like mad. Into the 35.9 aid station I go. Back in the chair I go to fix the feet. Dammit. "Beware the chair" is the number one advice I give ultrarunners. I am in the chair at least ten to fifteen minutes at each aid station taking care of stuff. I am still below target pace. Everything is ok. I run on.
At the next unavoidable and useless pee stop, I duck into the woods. Upon squatting an insane fire shoots throughout my inner thighs. It has to be the plant I'm on. I brush it away with my hand and an insane fire shoots on my hand. Holy shit. I get far away from this plant while the burning continues (and the stupid trickling continues). It must be some kind of stinging nettle that left its barbs in me. Stinging nettle back home doesn't do that to this degree. I rub aquaphor on my inner thighs. It is the only thing I can think to do. In the meantime welts are forming on my hand.
I run on. There is a lot more walking than I anticipated. Mostly because my bladder is in such bad shape. I debate just relaxing the muscles, but if I piss myself the chafing from wet shorts will be debilitating in the long run.
I run on. The canal is lined with really long, narrow boats. They are beautiful. They are all topped with various plants and herbs on top as well as bikes, wheelbarrows and various junk. In great boat tradition, the majority are named after women. The boat owners and the other people that are out all have dogs. Great dogs. Big dogs. Dogs that pay me no heed and are quiet, mellow, and happy to be alongside their masters enjoying a beautiful day. It is a beautiful day and everyone is on their boat or working on it. It is weird, but for going by so many people, no one pays attention to the race, no one says hi. They go about their own business. For most of the rest of the race I decide they are my only amusement, and fuck it, I am going to be one bubbly-assed sonofabitch, and for my own pleasure I will get every one of these people to say hello. I wave, I say good afternoon, I compliment the beautiful boats. They never initiate, but they always reciprocate.
The boats move so slowly that you beat them down the canal, especially when they get to the locks. The locks are very frequent in some parts and require running up and down hills. This course is hillier than advertised with all the locks and frequent crossings of bridges, but still could definitely be described as flat. The course on the canal path for the most part is remote except for rare stretches through towns where there are beautiful pubs with outdoor seating. Lord, I would have loved to be sitting outside having a pint. We go through rolling areas dotted with grazing sheep and patched with bright yellow fields of mustard. The best word for it would be bucolic. With the exception of the more developed sections, the course was just running in grass, single-track, or to my mild annoyance, a very thin path that developed when the boaters ride their bikes ahead to start preparing the locks for the person on their boat. It is exactly as narrow as one Hoka'd foot and requires that one foot be placed directly in front of the other. I'm too uncoordinated for that shit.
The running in grass takes a lot out of you. I lose time. Pee (barely), run (uncomfortably with a bladder that might burst), walk too much. I am mainly alone. When I leave the 53.0 aid station a woman who has done the race twice but never finished is right on my ass. She falls badly. I gather her bottle and map and keep asking her if she is ok. She insists that she is fine and tells me to go on. I feel awful. I understand. I'm a frequent faller. It takes a few minutes to get the sting out. I feel awful though. I hope she is ok. I never want to beat anyone due to injury. I am so happy to see her later, we leapfrog a little, and she goes on to beat me.
I run on. I get lost twice before the next aid station. The course is unmarked and I have two of my three huge laminated maps from the RD in my drop bags. Twice during this event we climb England's equivalent of Mt Everest. There are long tunnels where the boats used to be pushed through with some kind of a pole. While the boat is underground, we have a mile or so to run. I made a wristband with mileages and directions for the bridges (R or L). If something was too confusing, I just wrote "map" and knew I had to consult the map. I didn't have the second map on me and ended up having to walk slowly for a mile or more with another racer who knew the course in order not to get messed up.
The next aid station at 70.5 is only memorable because it is one more aid station before I get to meet Hoppity, her husband Brian, and my pacer James in person. The people there inform me that I have a nice sunburn going on. I am losing speed and realize that I am going to be a hour late off of my estimated arrival to meet them (they understand how this works though, I could be three hours early or three hours late by the time I get to 84.5). I start to really hustle because I feel bad. I go by weird stretches that involve a super short section of cobbled path near bridges the long stretches of grass. Cooking smells are coming from the boats. It smells wonderful.
|I just think this is a cool shot. This is a picture of a racer from 2006.|
I know what the race time is, but I don't know what it is in "real time". You never want to know this. I can live with it being 21:00 on a race clock, but once you understand that is three in the morning, you become more tired. People are going to bed. The lights on the houseboats are going off. I go by a pub and hear raucous laughter and the sounds of bottles being smashed. I've decided between that and what I saw in Birmingham, that the British are all piss poor drinkers and soccer hooligans at heart. This thought amuses me.
I get my hustle on because I feel bad for Hoppity. I am moving the best I have for hours when I finally fall. I am shaken up and limping very badly. I know the drill. This ain't my first rodeo. Two minutes of thinking I will never run (or walk) again in my life, jog a little, and then everything is magically ok. I bleed. No big deal. I just opened up an area that I tore open on one of my super early Wednesday morning runs a month ago. I eventually make it into the aid station. I meet my pacer James and Hoppity's husband Brian. Hoppity is sleeping in the car, preparing for a full night of pacing Purdey. Hoppity and Brian will take turns pacing and crewing Purdey, taking over the crewing from Ian and Purdey's wife.
They go to wake her, and I finally get to see the infamous cankles. My pacer looks antsy and ready to go while I spend an ungodly amount of time refilling liquids, restocking Gus, putting some warm layers on, cleaning up the knee a bit, and tending to my feet. Finally we are off. James had run a 50 mile race the weekend before, and I requested that he not tell me anything about it until we were out running together. We spent most of our time together talking about various races in the UK and US, he asked me some questions about longer races, and we discussed future racing plans.
He was good company. I was worried that I would get a pacer that yammered nonstop and drove me batty. We had a perfect combination of talk and silence. It began to get cold and I wished I had thrown my tights on. In addition, a cold, thick mist was coming off the canal. At some points I couldn't see in front of me. Another reason to walk. Two good things happened when James joined me. I gave him the maps, and he started navigating and finding out what bridges we were supposed to cross over. If there was any question about the route, he would run ahead and scope it out. Also, finally, blessedly, I was able to pee like a normal human being. It had been so miserable that I was thrilled to have that pressure gone. Of course now I was peeing blood, but it's not the first time that has happened, and I wasn't worried.
I pass a woman. I hadn't seen another runner in hours. When I pass, I pass like I mean it and I keep up a long stretch of running (ummm...that's probably "long" and "running"). James laughs at me and says he can see the competitive thing coming out. The sun starts coming up slowly. The nice thing about this race is that there was so much sunlight. I think it will really help me when there is sun. Even though it may be getting lighter, I'm getting considerably colder. I'm downright freezing. When I roll in to the 100 mile aid station, I take a huge amount of time getting myself ready. I have some hot coffee, put on tights, change my shoes and socks, and resupply. Race time was 22:30. My previous 100 mile split of a long race had been 17:32. Yikes.
The next stretch has twenty miles before the next aid station. My bag that I am using for the trip is there. Purdey's crew had taken it with them so that I could get it in London. Purdey was now out of it. I feel bad. No more of Sara and her husband then. The race people are nice enough to haul the bag to the end for me. I had changed from the Hoka's to a pair of Saucony Guides, just to mix things up for a bit because my arches were beginning to feel like there were little mini daggers going through them. Not horrible, but uncomfortable enough that I thought a 20 mile change of shoe might be nice.
This ends up being my biggest mistake of the race. All hell breaks loose in the next section. It is covered with stones. I feel each and every one of them. The bottom feet become brutally sore and sensitive. Then I feel the sleepiness coming on. I am usually ok once the sun rises, but something is happening despite my use of caffeinated Gu and 5 hour energy. My eyes start feeling weird, like they are rolling around in two different directions. Then they start closing. I am doing my best to keep them open just so I can see what I'm doing, because I have started staggering around like a drunk. I'm making more sideways movement than forward progress. I'm pretty sure that I'm going to end up falling in the canal.
I feel bad doing this to my pacer, but I ask a favor. "Can you wake me up in five minutes?" I have heard of runners taking a nap during a long race, but I always thought it was nuts. They usually go down for 30-45 minutes during the night. I don't understand how they could wake up and run. I'd be groggy and very stiff. This time I have to do something. I'm not going to make it any other way. I lay down in the grass next to the path.
Within 30 seconds I am asleep. It absolutely enveloped me, and I was happy that I was able to actually fall asleep. I have a terrible time sleeping after these races, and I was worried once I laid down, that I would just be unable to snooze, while wasting time. Right before my five minutes were up, I popped up. James was surprised that I had woken up on my own, right at five minutes. I felt great. My feet hurt less and I was totally energized. I started running again. Wide, wide awake and chipper. Best decision of the race was to blow that five minutes. I wouldn't have been able to finish without it.
The feet stopped feeling good pretty quick, though. It took an eternity to get to 110. Over three hours. I don't even understand how that is possible. I start thinking of small mileage segments, and realizing how long each one will take me. I think about the average morning where I can roll out of bed and blam out ten miles before breakfast. It feels like I am a completely different person and a totally different runner. All miles are not made equal. The next ten took a long time and were punctuated by another nap, where houseboat residents came over to ask James if I was ok. Twice more before the end of the race I went down for five minutes, always at a point that I thought it was absolutely necessary and essential if I was to finish. None of the stops were as satisfying as the first.
I run on. The second half of the stretch to 120 miles goes slowly. I am counting the steps until I can get into my Hokas. The bottoms of my feet are destroyed, and every step is murder. At 120 I take too long, and I am cranky. Endless volunteers come up to me and ask me if I want anything. No. I am fine. I just need to take care of my shit. They list all the items they have to eat and drink. No. Am I sure? Yes. Next one comes up and does the same. They are being awesome and doing their job, but I'm not feeling good. I have stopped eating on a regular basis long ago. I take a rare Gu for the caffeine. I'm not running. I don't think I need to fuel for running. I gather my stuff. I won't see my drop bags again until the end. There is an aid station at 133. This whole section is unremarkable. I walk slowly. Can't I even walk fast if I'm going to be walking? No. Christ, my feet hurt.
The middle of this section also starts the time where the rest of the race becomes an attempt to avoid all the cyclists (commuter types, not spandexy freaks with aerobars). At one point I ask James what mile we are at. He tells me a little over 129. My longest distance ever. It is supremely anti-climactic. I tell James for the millionth time that he doesn't have to stay with me. Things are bad and they are going downhill fast. I want him to get to experience the finish if that is what he wants. He's earned it. But it is going to take so many hours that it is ridiculous, and I already feel bad that he has had to spend hour after hour at a crawl. He kept saying that he would decide later. He finally tells me he is going to break off at 132. His parents live close to there. I am relieved. I feel bad, and frankly, it is just embarrassing having someone witness your failure for so damn long. I give him a gross hug goodbye. I really appreciated everything he did. I know my race would have been much worse if he hasn't been there. He was good company, and he kept me out of my own head with good conversation.
The next mile has to be much longer than a mile. It takes a really long time, even for me. Once I get to the aid station I have them throw a mix of lemon squash (lemonade) and water into my hydration pack. The people are funny, and I tell them (like I told all the volunteers) how excited I was, and how I told everyone in the States that they had squash at the aid stations in the UK. I was excited to hear there would be something different, and disappointed to hear it meant juice. I also told them that the terms "torch/head torch" always made me smile because back home that is what we storm castles with (along with our trusty pitchforks).
|Wrigleygirl and her pitchfork.|
Enough goofing around, time to move forward. I think I can see other people about to head into the aid station, and I want to stay ahead of them. Two miles later a passerby says "ten miles left". Woo-hoo. I can smell the barn. I start running. Then I stop and go back to walking. Horrible pain is shooting through my feet. I pull out my iPod for the first time this race. Music will make it better. I tell myself that I just have to make it five songs before I can put my feet up to alleviate the pain. I make it two and a half. I put the stupid iPod away.
I can't walk any further. I lay down in some tall weeds. A really nice runner who I met on Friday night and got to spend some time talking to, comes by. He checks that I'm ok. He is ready to finish and runs off. A woman passes by with her four children. One of her children stops in front of me on their scooter and she calls to all of them, hurriedly gathers them, and gets them as far away from me as possible, while shooting panicked looks my way. I realize that normally you wouldn't want an unbathed stranger who is lying bleeding in the weeds near your children, but I have a race bib on, dammit. I see a woman and her pacer coming. I have to get up and hurry. I'm not letting any women pass me. Each time I sit or lay down it makes my feet a million times better...for a little bit. Attempting to jog is useless and just results in having to put my feet up sooner.
I continue on and go into a section that is a bit on the industrial side. I am trying to stay in front of the woman behind me, but the pain becomes unbearable again. I have to sit down. She passes me with her pacer. I recognize her as the woman that was attempting an out and back of this course. She finished the 145 miles to Birmingham the night before the race started. I can't believe it. It is the most humiliating and demoralizing point in my running life. I still feel that way a week and a half later. Humiliated and demoralized are the only words that fit. She cheers me on and leaves me in her dust.
I get up and start walking again. I have to sit down, and luckily I see a bench. It is mile 138 and I decided that it is over. I can barely walk ten minute stretches, and I'm walking so slowly that pedestrians are blowing by me. I don't know what to do. I don't know where I have to go or what I have to do to get a cab. All I know is that I have seven miles left, and I can't walk them. That's over two hours at my pace. I don't care about finishing, I just don't want to walk any more.
I consider a few things: I spent a lot of fucking money to come all this way, I have had about a trillion DNF's this year, all in races where I just didn't feel like doing the whole thing, and most importantly, it would probably be more of a hassle to try to find my way and get to the finish, than just to finish. I continue on. I stop and sit frequently when I just can't walk. People look at my leg and ask if I'm ok. Apparently I'm the first person in England to ever skin their knee. Interesting. Maybe they will name the condition after me. I will be the Lou Gehrig of uncoordinated people.
With three miles left I say no sitting down. Fuck the feet. I just want to be done so badly. The bridges are numbered. I have to finish at bridge number 4, around Little Venice. I start staring at all the numbers, praying that they start going down in a hurry. Sometimes they are close, sometimes they are a mile apart, and sometimes an asshole was allowed to number them. 7A? 7B? 7AB? God help me, if I had the energy I would throw rocks at the bridges. I keep looking at my watch. I want to get this done before hour 37 hits. I don't know if I can do it, but I will try. I attempt stretches of jogging again. They are comically short and awkward. At this time I realize that on the bottom of my left foot a giant blister has formed. Right on the ball of the foot. Well, that's a first. I keep up with the run/walk, the running becoming more frantic, and my gait even goofier from the blister (if that is possible).
|This is Little Venice.|
I have been thinking a long time about the end of the race. Everyone is gone. I am not all out spent the way I am after a 24 hour. This feels different. But I know after the 24 hours, I can't take care of myself. I'm fully incapacitated, and for someone that is totally independent and self-reliant, this is always terrifying. Plus I know what is coming after the race. I am dreading all of it.
I get to bridge number four. There is more to go. And Ian is there. I am so happy to see him. He is in jeans, dress shoes, and has a 70lb camera around his neck but he starts running with me. When I ask him how much further he tells me 600 meters. Oh God. I can't run that far. My watch has me in a panic and there is no goddamn way I am walking in a finish of a race. It keeps going, I keep running. The finish. They said it would be low-key, and it was. As I run to the sign I feel my face crumple up. Oh shit, I'm going to start crying. Dumb girl.
The race director gives me a hug (and the heaviest medal I own). I called him a bastard and he just laughed. While I sit, Ian and his lovely girlfriend are gathering my bags. Ian goes to find a cab and his girlfriend is making sure I was ok. She was so nice. To sit around all day to help out some stinky stranger that her boyfriend has talked to one or twice on the internet? Some people are just good people. They get in the cab with me and help me out at the hotel. They won't let me carry any of my bags, and they even carry them up the four floors (!) to my room. This part of the race I got very lucky.
No, I don't shower. I never do right after these races. I'm unable to stand that long. Where there is a shower with a tub I still have to wait because I can't get down and back up out of the tub. Plus once you get in the shower the chafing spots scream at you. I've had enough for one day. I climb into bed with all my race clothes on. I am very cold and can't stop shaking. The expected leg cramps kick in. I don't fall asleep until late that night, and it is for brief 20-30 minute naps.
In the morning I force myself to shower and leave the room so I can see Mo Farah race. I've actually been really excited about this. The blister on the bottom of my foot has gotten huge, and I walk with a major limp. Someone in London deserves a big award. They can apparently see stupid coming from far away. Every crosswalk has "Look Left" and "Look Right" written on it. I need it. I start walking through Hyde Park and get turned around. I end up in Kensington Gardens where I think a little stroll would be good for me. A minute later I am lying in the grass sleeping. Mo is going to have to wait for another time.