Grand Union Canal Race – A Crew Perspective

GUCR - River view
Written by: Peter Karaiskos. Crewing for Elisabet & Colin together with Stephanie Simpson and helped by Mark Kleanthous during the night hours.

Having chatted to Colin & Elisabet about the race I volunteered to crew! After a few dropouts and illnesses, I was going to be one of three including Steph Simpson & Mark Kleanthous who would be buddying from Milton Keynes

We put a race plan together, loaded up the van and were off up the M1 to Birmingham. On the way up, Colin informed me he was struggling to walk, let alone run due to a hip injury… A less than desirable start but hey, Colin is tough and starts most races injured and with minimal training so I wasn’t too worried. 145 miles is plenty of time for the body to adjust after all. The day he is fully fit and well prepared is the day I will worry.

Arriving in Birmingham we found our hotel, checked in, registered for the race and headed to the pub! A must before any ultra I am told! Guinness, beer and a burger and they were ready to race!

With not much sleep (low flying helicopters, loud drunk girls…) we were up and at the start line for 6 am. They were off and so were Steph and I running to the van to make sure we got to the first checkpoint in time. Armed with food, drinks, clothes, socks, foot care products galore and our clipboard ready to record what they ate, drank and medication they took. We were going to be the best crew ever!!

We were at the checkpoint with over an hour to spare, had a chat with the crew of race favourite Pat Robbins and straight away realised we had not got a flask to keep the hot water in. By now it was raining and we also did not have an umbrella between us!! We saw them through the checkpoint and we were off again. First stop the local town where we paid over the odds for umbrellas, thermos flask and wellington boots! The next few checkpoints all took on a similar theme: we arrived, got ready for them to arrive, got wet for an hour, and received Colin and Elisabet in good spirits. Colin was still injured but they were on schedule and doing well. Then off they went again!

Meeting Mimi Anderson at mile 53 gave all the runners a lift. Colin took this opportunity to share a Pimms with her.

We had agreed we were going to break the race down into 3 parts: the faster 1st section, slowing down slightly in the middle and whatever they could manage for the final 3rd. With the first third complete we were preparing to move into the middle section and go through the night! This was always going to be tough. No sleep, damp wet weather and a canal ready and waiting should you fall asleep or stumble off the path! With head torches on and having passed the half-way point at mile 65.5, they could now have a running buddy with them. Steph set off on the first stint and I headed off to the next checkpoint. I then took the next stint. It was getting wet again and Colin and Elisabet were getting tired. We bumped into Rikard, a Swedish runner who we knew. He was standing in the bushes having a wee whilst asleep… This is not good under any circumstances and we woke him up and helped him to the next checkpoint.  We needed to keep working hard to stay on schedule. It is very easy to waste time in and out of the van at checkpoints, especially at night.

We were now at mile 80.4 where Mark Kleanthous joined the crew to buddy Colin and Elisabet through the next few hours. Colin was now struggling to eat much and had been sick. His feet were not great and all he wanted was his Hokas to run in. We turned the van upside down but could not find them anywhere to Colin’s dismay. We had to send him off in his Mizunos but at least he was in Mark’s very capable hands. Mark spent the next hour feeding him 1 grape every 3 minutes to get some food into him.

We were into the early hours of the morning now. Mark jumped into the van and I took the next leg as we were getting closer to the 100-mile mark and the end of our second leg. Elisabet was sleepwalking next to me whilst I had my eyes glued to Colin who was in front, making sure he did not fall asleep and wander into the canal!

The night was long but when the sun came up at about 4:45 am we had made it through the night. We reached the 100-mile mark sometime before 7 am. This was behind their desired schedule but the night was tough and we had underestimated how slow going it was in the dark. Elisabet looked tired but in good spirits, whereas Colin looked totally f****d!! He fell into the van and said: “wake me up when it’s time to leave”. A quick change of clothes and shoes for Elisabet and they were off, Colin still wanting his lost Hokas, still not keeping any food down and looking worse by the hour! The good news, however, was that they were now into the third and final stage, the sun was shining, Steph was with them and they were moving forward!

Driving to the next checkpoint my phone rang. It was Steph reporting “they want natural yoghurt and Colin wants chips”. It was great that he wanted to eat but where was I going to find chips on a bank holiday Sunday morning?  Instead, they got Magnum ice cream which seemed to hit the spot!

They were starting to slow now, Elisabet still able to run and walk and actually able to pick up the pace but Colin was in a bad way and telling Elisabet to leave him and go off on her own. We had a team meeting which consisted of all three of us not agreeing on anything and Colin then out of nowhere started to pick the pace up and starting his march to the finish! We needed to keep the food intake up so Steph found Kentucky chicken and chips and this saved Colin. We sat on a bar by the canal and I fed him like a baby but he was eating which was the important thing. We were all still together and we only had 25miles left.

Elisabet was now coming into her own and looking really strong so the decision was made she was going to push on, Steph was going to stay with Colin and I was going to get to the next checkpoint.  I was now worried Elisabet was going well but on her own. How Colin was still moving I will never know as he had now developed an ankle the size of a football on top of his hip injury and lack of food intake. With 12 miles left Elisabet was looking good and getting faster, i-pod on and quickly closing in on the finish line. Colin arrived at the last checkpoint with his ankle needing ice. Whilst we were icing it we were talking to a race Marshall and joking as Colin was still asking for his Hokas. She informed us they were at the finish as they had been handed in…We promptly told him if he wanted them he’d better get to the finish and get them so that’s exactly what he did! He did that last 12 miles in more pain than I can imagine and with 50% of the field had retired already. Not finishing never crossed his mind however and he somehow found the strength to sprint the last 2 km to come in under 39 hours! Colin finished in 38:59 and Elisabet 37:45! Amazing achievements and it was amazing to be part of it. We all fell into the van and started to head home. We still forgot his Hokas, I guess they will remain at the finish line forever!

After all this, you would think I would be put off of doing this race but actually the opposite. I will be putting my name into the hat for 2015!!

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