Running the Great Union Canal Race

Image of Kenneth smiling at one of his rest stations.

Guest blog by Kenneth Donaldson on running the Great Union Canal Race (145 miles!) for rhinos. 

You feel terribly brave when you sign up for the Great Union Canal Race (GUCR). Since this happens around Christmas it enables you to flounce into parties and casually drop your forthcoming heroic epic into the conversation. “Oh, haven’t you heard of it?… Legendary race…145 miles. Non-stop. Yes, non-stop. You’re allowed a 40-minute break, but what would be the point, you’d just seize up. Yes, it will be tough, but these things are in the mind.”

How very, very little I knew.

The horror actually began to dawn in March. I’d lately been doing a few more miles training, pushing it up to 50 per week, which I thought was plenty. The most I would generally run would be 20 miles, but in March I thought I’d better push it up a bit. Off I set up the Lee Valley on a 35-mile run to Hertford. By mile 25 I had had it, I just wanted desperately to stop, for it to all be over. Not a good sign, really. The fear started to take hold. I found a blog from a past competitor, whose training notes included the fact that her hardest single week was 123 miles, including a 50 followed the next day by a 20. OMG.

Now scared out of my wits, the training got stepped up and up.

Meanwhile I managed to seek out a past competitor to talk to, and ask my idiot questions about toilets and socks and whatnot. Kevin was a man of about 60 who looked to be constructed purely of muscle, bone and steel, with grizzled grey hair and a notable absence of a smile. He had completed the race in 38 hours, during which time it never once stopped raining. Cold, wet, unending, energy-sapping misery. I bombarded him with questions. At the end of our chat, I asked him what was the worst thing about the race. Duh! The rain, surely? But no. Not the rain. Getting threatened at knife-point by a 14-year-old lad at 1am in Milton Keynes, was in fact the low point. I believe Kevin proceeded to hand the boy his head, as they say in Glasgow, in order that the wee nyaff would not have a pop at someone more vulnerable. None of which provided the warm blanket of reassurance that I was so hopefully seeking.

5:55 am on Race Day at Gas Street Basin. Vulnerable is not an adjective that you would apply to any of the 98 people milling about on the cobbles. Every one of them looked well handy. This was a very different crowd. Everyone I talked to seemed to have done multiple Ultras – and that was just this year. We are talking about people who think doing a 100-miler is a good warm-up. These are the Ultra hardcore, who seem to do six or seven events a year. I do one event every six or seven years. (“Up your game, Donaldson!”) And yet, all of them are, at some level, afraid of the GUCR. Its reputation is legendary, said to be one of the hardest, which I think is down to the 40-minute rule as well as the length. Others may be longer, but this is the one that commands respect.

Image of Kenneth and some of his support crew along the route of the GUCR.I had stayed the previous night with Karl and Tina. I had turned up on their doorstep with a rucksack full of samosas and Snickers, shoes and spare tops, head-torches and hi-viz vests. Karl had volunteered to be Support Crew 1 and it would be his job to find me on the canal every hour or so, get some food and water into me and boot me on my way. Then drive to the next spot and repeat, ad nauseam. He was joined by another friend, Mandy, to co-pilot. Together, their unfailing cheerfulness and energy pulled me onwards. After six or seven miles there they would be, with a seat for me in the shade, a smile, snacks and a couple of tennis balls so I could massage my feet for five minutes before staggering onwards. Hour after hour they put in and the miles slowly slid by. First checkpoint at 10 miles. 26 miles, the first marathon. 45 miles, only 100 to go (don’t cry). 62 miles (100 km), the furthest I had ever previously run. Finally, at 8 pm or so, we met for the last time and Support Crew 2 took over. I almost burst into tears as they took off, it had been an extraordinary day and now night was falling. Onwards we go. Only another 75 miles. What could go wrong?

Support Crew 2 were my lovely Cathy, plus friends Oli and Gosia (often known as Gosh), who had hired a motorhome for the occasion and driven down from Manchester with their dogs and all manner of additional snacks. The race rules state that “Buddies can only join from Mile 65”. The plan was that one of the three would come running with me on each stage while the other two went on to find the next meeting point, get out the chair and tennis balls and try to look like they were enjoying it, plus force food into me. I was finding it really hard to eat, not so much lack of appetite as a dry mouth that turned all my food to sand. Gosh more or less saved my race single-handed by producing, just when I needed it, tomato soup with lumps of bread and cheese shoved in, or strawberries and yoghurt, or tinned ravioli, or scrambled eggs. Wet food, definitely the answer. A piece of genius.

I was running with Cathy somewhere in the darkness around mile 80 to 90 when the UK enjoyed one of the biggest and most spectacular thunderstorms on record. The sky lit up like day. The images were utterly stunning. The Met Office said there were between 15,000 and 20,000 lightning strikes. And then came the deluge: the heavens opened. I was already pretty damp from sweat. Now I was utterly sodden. We had another changeover – seat / tennis balls / soup – and then Oli took up the buddy-running duties. But I had got really cold in that 5-minute pit-stop and was in a great deal of trouble. The only way to cope would be to pick up the pace and try to generate a little body heat until the next changeover, in another six or seven miles – which would take me more than an hour no matter how hard I tried, as my 90-mile legs were making abundantly clear. I zipped everything up and tried to force the speed. The pain in my left leg didn’t immediately manifest itself, but pushing cold and tired muscles too hard royally buggered all sorts of muscles, as I discovered when I tried to get going after the next fuel break. If I just say “ouch” you can probably read in a more accurate version yourself.

In all of this personal trauma Oli had, without the slightest hesitation, put on his waterproofs and headed out with me into a really filthy storm at 2 am and did so with a bounce in his step. Similarly, Cathy – now soaked from the last leg – and Gosh never stopped giving the impression they were actually having fun, which defies all belief. They spent hours on WhatsApp, exchanging banter with Mand and a group of other supporters, keeping everyone up to date with our progress, including photos of me in various states of shock or of random buff competitors or of Gosh’s glorious culinary triumphs, none of which I was really aware of, beyond the constant pinging of my phone, as I couldn’t really stop to read it all. In fact, messages were coming in from up and down the UK and across Africa, with a good few people getting kind of hooked on watching our grinding progress as the numbers slowly clicked upwards. Cathy and Gosh invented a new game from all the WhatsApp photos. At each rest stop, there’s a photo of me trying to look rugged and brave (and usually failing). The game is to put them in chronological order based on the level of my wretchedness. Nice.

Thus it was that from mile 92 or thereabouts, life became a battle. My leg had dropped off. My lower back was rubbed raw by my snack pouch. We’ll not discuss my groin. My hands wouldn’t straighten. My elbows started to ache. I lost my voice, since I had been breathing through my mouth for the last 18 hours. My poor, poor feet. All in all, sub-optimal. Up until this point I had run pretty much every step. Slowly for sure, but actual bona fide running: both feet off the ground, you know the drill. From this point onwards, I had to march as fast as I could. Chris WhatsApped that in Afrikaans there’s a word for it…Vasbyt. Grim bloody-mindedness, I guess. I found that I could march at around 4½ miles an hour. Latterly I had only been running at a little over five (having started at somewhere north of six). I had time in hand, in terms of the 45-hour cut-off. I would get through this. But I did feel bad for my Crew, who’d now be out for rather longer than we’d anticipated and I had already taken a huge chunk of their Bank Holiday.

Running every step of the first 90 was a minority strategy. I think most people were on a run-walk strategy. Run for say 30 minutes, walk for 10, repeat. They do this even when feeling fresh and strong. It’s a sound strategy. In my wisdom, I decided, literally on the day, that it was not right for me. What I would do would be to run all the way (ha ha) keeping well within my limits, never pushing it into the red zone, but thus earning an extra couple of minutes at each hourly pit-stop. This meant I kept overtaking the same people, and then they in turn went past me while I sat and ate and rolled my tennis balls for precious relief. It’s a friendly race. People help and encourage and support each other. Initially, I had chatted to a number of runners on the start line, as we were closely grouped for the first 10-odd miles. Depressingly, all of them were past competitors who had DNF’d. One poor sod told me his first Did Not Finish was down to horrific blisters at mile 90. Then his second came a year later at mile 125. His back locked solid, and he couldn’t move. Mile 125. It would break your heart. So here he was again, although whether “happy as can be” was debatable. Another got plantar fasciitis; a screamingly horrible pain in the foot muscle under your arch. He took 50 minutes to travel one mile and then called it in. And so it went on, a litany of broken bodies, all coming back to try again. I stopped talking to my fellow canal-travellers.

Eventually, it stopped raining. I had survived the night. Then, as Cathy buddied me through an early morning stage, an old friend Kris appeared as if by magic. He’d actually been going to get up at stupid o’clock in order to come and support, but I was by now a good long way behind my initial and horribly naive estimates. What a boost that was. He asked if we needed anything. Cathy said tins of soup, since that was all I was eating, and we were now out. He shot home and met us a bit further on with two tins of life-saving soup. Then he marched with us into the morning for a bit. That kindness probably kept me in the race, the issue of food was so fundamental. No fuel, no progress.

It was Kris who recognised Kirsty and Ian, who had also got up good and early to buddy me down past Tring, by now about 50 miles from London. Kris said goodbye and our little gang set off. Ian and Kirsty were with us for 20 long, increasingly hot, increasingly slow miles. I was now down to about four miles an hour, and pit stops were expanding a little. So 20 miles was at least six hours. By now, and in fact, more or less from the start, I was wholly focussed on the next sit down and tennis-ball session. I thought of nothing else. Just that. Never beyond. How many miles till the next meeting point? How much time that would take? Five miles or one hour was ok. But more than that was torture. The pain and exhaustion ramped up fast after about an hour. The surprising thing is that the longed-for pit-stop made such a huge difference, even if it was only five minutes, after which I could get up and get out. Albeit in a somewhat comedy parody of a Frankenstein’s Monster, legs bent at odd angles, until after about ½ mile or so, I had warmed back up and could more or less march properly.

I think it was round about Tring that Kris appeared for the third time, this time with Rachel. Rachel is Kris’s partner and is a massage therapist. What very heaven! If I heard right, he’d previously said on our march that she couldn’t join us because of family commitments. But when he’d seen the state of me… and so here she was. She worked on my feet and ankles first, and then looked at my knee. This was when we exchanged “the look”. I looked at her, she looked at me and what I saw on her face was sheer horror. My knee was clearly plain wrong. Wrong shape, wrong size, wrong temperature, wrong colour. Wrong. Nothing was said. All of this was quite possibly only in my imagination. I had now been running / marching for 28 hours or so. But in my mind, that look was eloquent.

On I lurched before everything jammed up. It was shortly after this I started to hallucinate. About bridges. Every rest stop was located at a bridge over the canal, meaning the car could get in. Every bridge on the canal has a British Waterways number. We would meet next at Bridge 187 for example. Me and my little gang of buddies would come to a bridge. 182. 5 to go. The next bridge was 183. Happy days. The next… 183a. Agony. Rage. And the next, 183b. Disaster. Bridges were my key interim focus while I counted off till the next seat. And so, around midday, all the trees curving over the water started to become bridges. Really solid ones, made from stone. Absolutely real. No doubt about it. Lots of them. And then, gone. I would have a little sniff to myself and keep marching. (Another competitor had hallucinated old women handing him cups of coffee. Another had wild animals leaping out. Everyone hallucinates. My bridges were fine.)

Image of Kenneth all smiles during the runEventually my buddies (with Rachel and Kris now dubbed Support Crew 2A while Ian and Kirsty became Support Crew 2B) reduced back to the original hardcore Crew 2. Somehow, one pit-stop to the next, we got closer and closer. My word, it took time. And it was now a really hot day. We stopped for my next seat at a pub which sold ice-cream. Gosh got a pint of ice for me, and put it in a zip-lock bag. Again, she had single-handedly saved my race. I marched the next 15 miles with an ice hat, the only thing that stopped me overheating totally. By way of thanks, I snapped at her, which was not my finest moment. She’d said something encouraging and cheerful like “Only 20 miles to go, it’ll be easy, you’re almost there!”. However, I never thought of the end, never of the remaining distance, never once of the countdown. All I thought about was the time to the next seat. 20 miles = 5 x 4-mile stints = at least 6 hours with breaks if I didn’t slow further = torture. “Do not tell me that 20 miles is easy” I croaked. Then I burst into tears again. (Quiet sobbing occurred often, but usually less publicly.) We marched on, this time, me and buddy-Oli. I felt wretched about being nasty to people who had basically carried me through this self-inflicted ordeal. What a heel. Would Gosh ever forgive me? Five miles later, there she was, somehow full of energy (this was now getting on for 5 pm on the Sunday, and no one had slept last night), handing out food, fetching random stuff I wanted, totally unfazed. I burst into tears again.

12 miles to go. I wasn’t thinking about that. This was 2 x 6. That’s 2 x at least an hour and a half. That means no chance of getting in before 9 pm. It also means a real struggle, after the effect of the seat and tennis ball wore off.

And speaking of seats, Phil was in MY SEAT. Phil was another runner, together with his buddy runner Paul, who had joined him at mile 65 to take him through the night, plan being to pack it in at dawn, leaving Phil to tough out the last miles, having got him through the night stage. Paul was an ex-GUCR finisher. He’d also failed on his first attempt, and it was Phil who had buddied him through his second, successful effort. Now he was repaying the favour. And how. Any rational or indeed humane person would have just taken Phil out and shot him. He was completely done. Utterly broken. I have never seen such a sad heap of pain. He had been suffering wildly for countless miles. At every rest-point, Paul would sit him down, let him rest, and then lift him up gently, firmly, and push him on. It defies any kind of logic. Having said he was a broken man, you may well ask me, “What was he doing in your seat then? That means he was ahead of you…” Draw your own conclusions. But I know for sure that there is no way that Phil would have even got close to the finish if Paul had not been his buddy, and had not stayed with him not just through the night, but all Saturday, and most of Sunday night too. Any other buddy would have failed. It had to have been a GUCR vet. Any normal person would have left him fail supposedly as an act of kindness. Only GUCR vets know how extraordinarily cruel that is, as all it means is they have to do it all over again. Paul would have marched 80 miles with Phil all up, always cheerful, full of banter.

The first six-mile stretch went through the least attractive part of the whole canal, derelict, industrial, dangerous looking, broken. It went on forever. Surely the longest six miles of my life. I guess I was now down to 3½ miles an hour. It was still too hot. The checkpoint never came.

Cathy and I trogged on. And then, a complete surprise. The checkpoint did appear, next to a broken bridge and a hideous looking pub. And manning it were not only Oli and Gosia, but also Mandy, and her partner, Ad. Naturally, I burst into tears. They’d come all the way back from Birmingham, just to see me home, like giving up the Saturday wasn’t enough. This really was feeling like an epic adventure now. But, all I was thinking of, literally all, was six miles = close to two hours = 10 pm = horror show. I couldn’t think about anything else. I didn’t even think of that being The End, it was just the next vital seat, is all.

There’s a curious stat about this race, which is that most people succeed…on their second attempt. I never really understood it until my chat with Kevin. He told me the thing was most first-timers do exactly what I had done. Persuade friends and family to crew you. This means every hour or so, there’s a sympathetic face and a means of escape. It’s too tempting just to get in the car, and stay in the car. Your sympathetic friend will say, “110 miles is awesome, you have nothing to prove, don’t do any more damage.” They will thus betray you. For your second attempt, your friend will find an excuse, and you will be an “unsupported” runner. Meaning, you rely on the minimal race support. This is not at all bad, hot food at checkpoints etc. BUT there are only nine checkpoints. The distances you have to travel between them are vast yawning gulfs. I don’t believe I could have succeeded as an unsupported. BUT – their stats are way better. This is down to one thing, which is that they have no escape route. If they say, that’s it, I am out, then they look around and find themselves in the middle of absolutely nowhere at 4 am in the morning with nowhere to go, and no means of getting there. So, they have a little cry and get on with it.

I said that six-mile stint through the wastelands was the longest of my life. Wrong again. The last six were really never ending. I know that stretch well, down past Wembley, Wormwood Scrubs, the life-size Elvis model in the white jumpsuit. How could it have been extended so that it lasted so very very long? I worried that Mandy and Ad would have to get back, I was keeping them an outrageously long time. I worried that Cathy and Oli and Gosh had not slept and neither had I seen them eat. They needed a proper meal. Here was I crawling in. Get a move on, boy.

My main training for this race had been two weeks in Spain, Catalonia, in the house of our great friends, Shaunagh and Crispin. Crispin was an elite athlete, rowed for England, twice won the Oxbridge boat race. He’d asked me to think about where it is that I go when things get very very hard. He said for him, it was like the old TV sets, when you turned them off. The picture didn’t simply stop. It would shrink down to a white dot and then blip out altogether. He said that was what it was like for him. By the time the dot blips out, you hope that you have just crossed the line. I am not sure I know what the answer is for me. I do know that as soon as we actually began, back in Gas Street, it was never about success or failure. It was only about the next few miles to see a friendly face. I honestly never deviated from that. It never occurred to me to stop. Anyway, my wonderful crews helped by hiding the car, walking the snacks and my seat and all the paraphernalia down to the canal side time and time again, then lugging it back again.

I came in at 10:01 pm, a mere 40 hours and one minute after I started.Image of Kenneth sitting with his medal after completing the GUCR.

Phil and Paul crossed the line 37 minutes later.

We sat at the finish line, which was less of a line than a gaggle. Cathy and Mandy had already made short work of the celebratory fizz, teach me to be so bloody slow. I chatted to Dick, whose race this really is, the founding father. He’d said it would be low key and he wasn’t joking. No chips or tracking or whatever. At the start at 6 am he pitched up and literally said, “right then, a round of applause for the supporters and then ready, steady, go!” And that was that. The 24th GUCR was off and it finished in the same style. It was utterly charming.

At the finish line, I heard about a runner called Mark with terminal liver cancer. He’d been diagnosed two years back and had to withdraw. The next year he was too ill from the chemo, but as a special dispensation, a group of friends were allowed to run a leg each in his honour. This year he ran it himself, cancer be damned. He came home in 44 hours 10 minutes.

I had been thinking about doing this race for well over 10 years before I entered. No one does this lightly. I heard about it from a girl that applied to join a Rhino Team for an Ultra in South Africa, 6 marathons in 5 days, rhino suit, the full nine yards. We had set a qualification of having done a five-hour marathon, but Andre said she hadn’t, so VERY reluctantly, we said we’d probably look for others. We met her on the start line, she’d come as an individual competitor instead and she was lovely, no hard feelings. The race, it turned out, was a farce, in my view criminally so. By day one half the competitors were out because they had failed to provide water stations. I will say that again. No water. South Africa. Ultramarathon. Go figure. Our rhino team was heavily reduced, and we were very likely going to have to ditch the suit, maybe the whole race, an unthinkable ignominy. Andre bounced up and offered to help, and with her generous assistance and with a few others of the walking wounded, we got the thing over the line. During this hideous experience, she casually mentioned she’d run the GUCR. 145 sodding miles. Nonstop. She fell in the canal at mile 120 from exhaustion. And she still finished. If only she’d said so from the out, we’d certainly have welcomed her into the fold, without a second’s hesitation. Too modest, perhaps. But I tucked that bit of info away and said to myself “One day…”

(Wrong again. It took two days.)

I would never have got through this without all the support from you all; before, during and afterwards from all of you, the generous sponsorship, the messages and cards and WhatsApps. The real stars of this show were Crispin and Shaunagh for setting me up to succeed; my cousin Alistair and the Allsopp family, who trogged out to cheer me on in the early stages; Crew 1 – Karl and Mand plus Tina for her generous welcome on the Friday night (and a great spag bol); Crew 2 – Oli, Gosia and Cathy; Impromptu Crew 2A – Kris and Rachel and Impromptu Crew 2B –Kirsty and Ian. You carried me for 145 miles. I will never forget it.

Kenneth will also be running Save the Rhino’s first ever Ultramarathon in Kenya – the ForRangers Ultra – in August. Sponsor Kenneth and congratulate him on this impressive run. 

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