I have a text message on my phone that I sent at 3:09am on Sunday morning. It reads simply “Push him on gels”.
This was sent to Simon Edwards, two hours into his ‘buddy’ running with Sam Robson at the 2014 Grand Union Canal Race (2014) after Sam had already run 110 miles in a little over 21 hours and was starting to feel the pain.
But, tracking back a bit. The GUCR started at 6am on Saturday 24th May from Gas Street in Birmingham and was set to follow the Grand Union Canal all the way to just shy of Paddington in London for the next 145 miles. By any stretch of the imagination, it is a beast of a race and one on many people’s bucket lists. Organised by Dick and Jan Kearn, two of the most respected people in UK ultrarunning, it is a huge race in the UK calendar.
I volunteered several months ago to help Sam Robson out as soon as his entry was confirmed and he put out a call for help. I wasn’t quite sure what the experience would be like but I knew that this race was probably beyond me, so wanted to experience it second hand just like I have at Western States. Crewing allows you to really feel the race and is the absolute next best thing to running. In fact, it ended up I was going to be running as well, albeit as a buddy runner, not an entrant and more of that later.
Sam was supported by Liz Grec and Simon Edwards from the very start on Saturday. Due to commitments, I left Bath at 11am on the train and two connections later I met them at Long Buckby station to join for the remainder of the race. At this stage, Sam was flying and my texts back and forth with Simon and Liz were based around should I stay on the train and get off at a later station, closer to London. It was all very exciting and I hadn’t even joined the race yet.
In the end, the timing worked out well and they collected me just after seeing Sam through mile 50 in a quick 8 hours. Most people would dream of running 50 miles in 8 hours but with another 95 to go? Wow. Either Sam was going to blow the course record out of the water or was going to be forced to slow significantly just to get to the finish in one piece.
We drove straight to the next checkpoint where Sam had just relinquished the lead and Pat ‘Paddy’ Robbins, the eventual winner, had just gone through before we arrived. Sam arrived smiling and relaxed a few minutes later in second place and I stood back to watch the already slick Simon and Liz complete the handover of old water bottle for a fresh one, new gels for old wrappers, a bit of fruit and sandwich gulped down and Sam was off again. I now knew what I would be doing for the next 24 or so hours.
Crewing in its individual parts, broken down, is not hard. Its drive, find, meet, feed, encourage, wave off and repeat. But with tiredness, calculating times between check points, hanging around in the cold, a very long day and the not to be underestimated factor of worrying for your runner, it is actually an absolutely exhausting process. Luckily, with two young kids, I am the master of the power-nap and I knew this would be essential to get me through the night. I encouraged Simon and Liz to try and sleep whenever possible as well and I like to think this made a difference for all of us.
I had only seen Simon and Liz briefly at races before and despite getting to know each other via social media, this was my first time properly spending time with them. The same with Sam, I suppose. It never ceases to amaze me how people in ultrarunning just get along, no matter how different their lives may be outside of the sport. I have had this at other events where I am at aid stations and I truly have had the pleasure of meeting some great people, just by helping out, let alone running.
We got on very well and just had a laugh between check points. A few petrol station snack stops, the odd McDonalds and very quickly we were into the night section.
Buddy runners are allowed to accompany runners from the mile 70 ish point on the GUCR, but with a few people having had to bail at the last minute it was just Liz, Simon and myself there to get Sam through the race. Based on this, he elected to run to mile 100 unsupported and then Simon and myself would take two equal-ish stints of 23 miles each running with Sam to help him to the finish.
For me, this was a pretty exciting prospect. At my level I don’t experience the sharp end of races so to be able to be a part of this was something I was really looking forward to. Simon, Liz and I waited at the 100 mile aid station for Sam to come in and kept looking for the ripple of his headtorch on the water as he came around the bend. The race was seriously spaced out already and there were gaps of up to an hour between runners. Sam had been doing great so far and hit 100 miles in 18 hours- again, a dream time for most to run a 100 miler, but he still had 45 miles to get to Paddington.
Simon was looking forward to running, but I wouldn’t have wanted to swap shifts with him. He was about to take Sam through the remainder of the night leg and with the sleep demons and fatigue setting in, he would have a much harder job than me when the sun came up, the end was in sight and Sam would be rejuvenated for the finish stretch.
It just goes to show the sheer length of this race, that Simon and I were set to run almost a marathon each with Sam and with these two stints combined that was still less than one third of this race. Sometimes I needed to take a step back and put this in perspective. Later the next morning when I was running with Sam we discussed this and how our community, as amazing as it is, just takes this stuff for granted sometimes. It was only when we bumped into inquisitive walkers on the canal that it hit home; “Sorry, you’ve run from Birmingham? Through the night? And haven’t stopped?” and so on.
And so, 1am on Sunday morning Simon and Sam trot into the night on the graveyard shift. Liz and I made our way between the checkpoints, roughly every five miles and power napped, before grabbing our bag of kit and strolling down to under some sinister pitch black bridges on the canal. These were covered in graffiti and I couldn’t help but think that between 1am and 5am on a bank holiday weekend, Saturday night/ Sunday morning, these would be prime areas to avoid. Thankfully, we saw no one and with our winter gear and headtorches on, we probably looked crazy enough to put people off coming near us anyway.
Sam was really fading through these hours and Simon did an amazing job to keep him moving. As the sun came up, we waited at the 115 mile check point- that’s right from 1am to 5am, Sam ran 15 miles. 15 miles in 4 hours- for someone who ran the first 100 in 18 hours. I felt so sorry for him (and Simon) as they shuffled in, cold, demoralised and simply exhausted. It was decided that Sam would take a nap in the warm car for ten minutes at this point and I must admit, I thought the game was up and he was about to drop out.
Ten minutes later, he emerged, white as a sheet and looking broken. I wasn’t about to tell him that and he wasn’t about to give up. Seeing him hobble back down to the canal path and prepared to walk the last 30 miles if needs be, in agonising pain, I am not ashamed to say brought a tear to my eye. OK, I was pretty knackered too- we all were. But Sam’s pain, in truth I haven’t seen anyone look like they were suffering so much outside of an Accident & Emergency waiting room (It wasn’t that bad really, Jen, I’m just making it sound dramatic, innit. He’ll be fine for Spartathlon…).
Liz and I returned to the car and headed to the next checkpoint six miles away. We honestly expected them to reach us in a further three hours. The game was up and we were all in for a much longer Sunday than we had bargained for. I estimated at walking pace he would take at least another 12 hours to get to Paddington, which would now be 6pm in the evening. This was pretty crushing for all of us.
Liz and I got to the next checkpoint and it was turning into a glorious morning. We were both tired, but I think having had so many broken sleeps these last four years my body just responds to 7am and it is time to get up. We got a coffee down us, and it was a new day. As we sat in the car chatting, my phone rang. ‘Simon Edwards’ the screen said and I instantly knew Sam had dropped or was dropping at the next check point where we were waiting. I almost didn’t want to answer it, thinking if I ignored it, it might fire Sam up to finish. But I did:
“I hope you are changed into your running gear already”, Simon said “We are fucking flying- you’d better be ready to take over running with him, we are doing ten minute miles!”
Jesus- that was like a bolt of electricity. I was still in my warm clothes from the night leg and hadn’t expected to get changed- I was all set to walk in with Sam and I wouldn’t need running gear for that.
I dived out the car, got my kit, vaulted a hedge and started stripping and plastering the old nips. I was ready!
20 minutes later they arrived, all smiles and adrenaline. The sun had invigorated the two zombies I had seen last an hour ago. They agreed to meet us again in three miles so as not to break the rhythm and it was then my job to get Sam the final 23 miles home.
Liz and I drove on, got me all set up to stretch and we waited. Not long later we saw them coming, keeping up the pace and Simon beaming from ear to ear, Sam wincing from ear to ear.
Here we go, 23 miles- all going well that means four hours, pretty slow at six hours or a death march at eight hours. I imagined six was realistic.
Soon after I started we took a wrong turn off the canal based on a mis-marked bridge on our guide sheet. This was tough on Sam and I was really angry and blamed myself even though it was an innocent mistake. I had been ribbing Sam about his sense of direction before the race and now it was me who had messed up. Considering his pain, he just dealt with it and considered it an occupational hazard- so off we trotted.
Sam’s knee was in agony by now and he really struggled to run until he forced himself through the pain and the rhythm then kicked in. It was my job to essentially start the engine with a combination of encouragement and abuse in equal measure. When he was running, I just jogged along and kept him encouraged to keep going. It’s very hard to see someone you admire in pain and distress, but at the same time it was my job to get him to finish and if I was too soft, when the pain faded in a few days and he looked at his time and felt it was poor (or dropped out), it would have been partially my fault. So, knowing he signed up for this and knowing that whilst it was painful he wasn’t doing any long term damage (his knee was mildly swollen and I kept an eye on it, but nothings serious) I kept pushing him.
On and on we trotted and eventually met Liz whilst Simon was presumably having a nap. It was now 16 miles to go and Sam was moving again. I didn’t let him stop as I knew he would seize up, so got his bottle changed, new gels, some minging sausage roll and we were moving again. At the next checkpoint we were set to see Nici Griffin and James Adams so I knew the abuse I gave him was nothing compared with what he was about to get. This section took an age but Sam ran really well and was still racing as we knew someone was close ahead and I really wanted to push him to catch them. Whilst he said he was starting to care less and less about placing, his job was to jog, my job was to set a speed and try and be competitive for him.
Eventually we saw the checkpoint in the distance and a few hundred yards shy went through a very surreal rave. It was now around 11am and let’s just say, those party goers made Sam look fresh. I am just very glad I only stay up all night now for running, god that lifestyle doesn’t appeal one jot.
After a good catch up with James and Nici, Liz and Simon coaxed Sam out of his chair and it was now “just” a half marathon to go. I set myself a personal target of getting him home in three and a half hours from there. That sounds unbelievably slow, and it is, but Sam’s pain really was severe. If he had said he was dropping I would have 100% supported him, but I was never going to suggest that, I just kept saying he was doing great.
We plodded on through some pretty rough and intimidating sections of canal. If that didn’t motivate Sam to run faster I don’t know what would have. I did say at one point how it would be pretty sad to run 140 miles and be murdered with 5 miles to go. It was in jest, but there were one or two shady characters around and I wanted us moving.
Six miles to go and just before we met Liz and Simon for the last time, Sam needed another sit down break but there were no benches in site. His knee was just gone and he had to take the pressure off. He found a fallen tree branch in the hedge and moved to sit on it. It creaked and almost cracked under his weight and so he had to stand. Seeing a man almost in tears because he couldn’t sit down was heartbreaking but I knew if I got him moving, he could sit down for as long as he wanted soon.
As we got to Liz and Simon I asked them “Is it happening? If so tell him. Tell him now”. Just before I started running, Liz took a call from Sam’s wife, Jen who said she was thinking of coming to surprise Sam at the finish with his little girl. But she wanted it to be a surprise and wondered what time he would arrive. How long is a piece of string….hold on….never mind, let’s not go there.
Liz nodded that it was happening and got Jen on the phone. Sam cracked up a bit but held it together. When he ended the call I said “We are running these last six miles. We are running and you are going to see your little girl”.
And we were off. We smashed out the last few miles and soon saw the skyscrapers of central London in the distance. Knowing West London very well, I pointed at a block of apartments that signalled Ladbroke Grove and half a mile to the finish. Sam gritted his teeth and we ran for them.
Half an hour later, we were in the Paddington basin and the finish came out of nowhere. It is the most inauspicious finish and testament to old school ultrarunning. It just says ‘Finish’ on an old banner, you get a medal and handshake from Dick Kearn and there were Pot Noodles for those who were hungry. Fantastic. I stood back and let Sam run in alone (10th place), where he collected his little girl and shuffled over the line with her. I had something in my eye again…
I hugged Simon and Liz. We had a pretty bonding 24 hours together and I have two more close friends now. I hugged Sam, collected my bags and jogged to Paddington to get the train home. An amazing experience and testament to the power of the human spirit. If Sam can get through that, I can get through my 100 miler in August and it was great to be able to take away from it the guts and determination of gutting out a finish, even if it is not the finish you dreamed of. I am just proud I could help out in my small way. Mark my words, Sam will win this race one year. That is for sure.