The 2014 Grand Union Challenge – 50km Ultra-Marathon

Bridge by rest-stop 1 - 14km

The 2014 Grand Union Challenge took place on 28th June. Below is David Sherman’s review of the race.

To most people who have never run before, a 5km or 10km is a challenge worthy of respect. Many people consider completing a Half Marathon a huge achievement and most will question your sanity when told you’ve signed up for a full marathon (“Why would you want to run 26.2 miles?!”), however if you really want to make someone’s jaw drop there are only two words you need to say… Ultra Marathon!

I won’t lie and pretend I felt in any way ready for this event. Despite having previously run 8 full Marathons (6 of which I actually enjoyed) I was seriously panicking about making the jump from 26.2 miles (42.2km) up to Ultra distance. For my first Ultra I was planning to tackle a 31 mile (50km) distance and one part of my mind kept thinking “It’s only an extra 5 miles” while the other (louder) side fought back with “yeah… but it’s an EXTRA 5 miles!!” and because of this I had a few simple criteria for the event. Firstly it had to be scenic to keep the distance interesting, but also flat enough so I wasn’t wasting energy running up and down hills. There needed to be regular rest stops to break the distance into manageable chunks and I wanted a bloody big medal to show everyone and prove I had completed the challenge, so when I heard about the ‘Grand Union Challenge’ I was happy to see it ticked all of these boxes.

Start area with charity flags

The pre-race information described how the organisers ‘Action Challenge’ run a number of similar events including the ‘Thames Path’ and ‘London 2 Brighton’ challenges, but this would be the first ‘Grand Union Challenge’, participants would consist of walkers and runners tackling distances of 25km, 50km or 100km and the 50km route I was planning to tackle would follow the Grand Union Canal from Paddington Recreation Ground in Central London up to Cassiobury Park in Watford. A month before the event I received a ‘final event information’ e-mail telling me what to expect at the event such as how to register and what I should bring with me, distances and addresses for each of the rest stops and what would be available at each one (i.e. water, energy drinks and snacks – more about those later). It also detailed cut-off times, rules of using the tow-path and what to expect when you reached the finishing line of your distance and provisions for walkers who may be travelling throughout the night. A week before the event my e-ticket arrived confirming the challenge I had entered, and 2 days before the event a final e-mail arrived wishing me luck and detailing last minute updates including a weather warning… oh great…

The morning of 28th June arrived and as we’d been advised to arrive an hour before our wave start time this meant catching the 5am train to get me there for 7:40am – ouch! – and when I eventually arrived on-site the sun was shining and it looked like it was going to be a beautiful day – so much for that weather warning! For all of Action Challenge’s events entrants are encouraged to raise a minimum amount for a charity of their choice and the start area proudly displayed flags of all the great charities benefitting from the event, and the registration process was nice and quick with entrants handed a race chip-card on a lanyard, number with safety pins, high 5 energy gel and a booklet containing emergency numbers, a course profile (30m of gain over the entire 50k – excellent) and maps of each section of the course – the entire 100km route spread over 8 pages of detailed maps! The race village contained plenty of portable toilets plus a large tent with refreshments including free tea, coffee, hot choc and biscuits offering a place to rest while awaiting your wave start. This also offered me a chance to chat with some participants and it was great hearing the reasons people were taking part including a team of 3 ladies walking the 50km for Alzheimer’s Society, while another guy planned to walk 100km for the British Heart Foundation and expected to complete the distance in around 27 hours! Whatever the reason people were participating, you could sense a mixture of worry and excitement and a definite buzz in the air. At 7:30am my wave headed to the start area for a warm-up, and then we were off – running through the streets of Maida Vale following the pink arrows and heading towards the canal to begin our journey…

Any runners reading will probably berate me for this, but I’ll shamefully admit I had one headphone in as I started running. Before the event I’d decided to run with a headphone in as I expected time to drag over such a long distance and felt music would be vital to distract me and make time pass quicker, however as I joined the tow-path at Little Venice it was immediately clear just how unnecessary the music was, and how I’d have plenty to distract me as I ran along. Despite the early hour within the first few kilometres I encountered people walking their dogs along the tow-path and a few people rising from their house-boats, and although the sun wasn’t too bright that early in the morning I was pleased to see shade offered by trees along the path, which also offered a home for various birds living along the water. I’m no Ornithologist so I couldn’t tell you anything about the breeds I encountered, but the sound of birdsong first thing in the morning really was amazing and straight away my headphones were tucked away so I could enjoy the beautiful sounds of nature waking up.

View of the canal

The first 14km flew by and as I reached Horsenden Hill and entered Berkeley Fields I was greeted at the first rest stop by 2 of the cheeriest Marshalls I’ve ever seen at an event alongside a fully loaded snacks table containing crisps, cereal bars, pastries, fruit, water and energy drinks. The rest stop also contained more portable toilets and another huge tent with tables and seats, and after a brief break I was off again.

Snacks at rest-stop 1 - 14km

Now one element of this challenge which I’d thought long and hard about before race day was how to fuel for this type of event. I understood there would be food at each rest stop and I’d previously used energy gels at regular intervals during other races, however because of the distance I planned to carry as little as possible so I decided to take along a couple of bags of Honey Stingers Organic Energy Chews. These were a product I’d trialled previously in half marathons and they’re basically an energy source made from organic honey in some pretty fantastic flavours such as ‘Pink Lemonade’, ‘Cherry Cola’ and ‘Pomegranate Passion’. I won’t go into too much detail now as we’re hoping to run a full product review on them in the near future, but I chose to eat one chew every couple of kilometres from 16km up to 35km, the final rest stop, and one chew each kilometre marker until the finish, and I’m happy to say this fuelling tactic worked great as I felt full of energy for the entire 50km!

Back to the course and as I left the rest-stop behind I begun the second part of stage 1 heading through Greenford with a stomach full of pastries and a big smile on my face. It was now mid-morning and more people were starting to use the tow-path, however at no point did I find the path over-crowded and although we’d been warned in the pre-race documents about cyclists, each one I encountered was polite and rung their bell or gave a shout to warn me of their presence. People also appeared from parked house-boats or travelling along the canal and again people greeted me or responded when I shouted morning. This section contained a mix of concrete, gravel and stony paths so it was important to concentrate on your footing (the last thing you want to do during an event like this is to trip over and end up in the canal!) and at the Bulls Bridge junction the route turned right as it entered Hayes, and a few km later I left the towpath entering Lake Farm Country Park, eventually reaching the 25km rest-stop indicating half-way for me and a quarter of the way for anyone tackling the full 100km. Again I had a nice long rest and a quick chat with a few other participants and I was pleased to hear my fellow runners were also enjoying the route and feeling positive about their remaining distances. Food options here included a hot meal which could’ve been pre-purchased before the event or paid for at the rest-stop, or snack options included cereal bars, crisps and large fruit skewers. After a quick rest I left the second rest stop and it was onwards into Stage 2 of the route.

By the halfway sign - 25km

The rest-stop’s exit led onto a main road and after a short distance we turned left at the Woolpack pub and re-joined the tow-path through unfortunately the smelliest part of the route as the canal took us past a number of factories. Admittedly the smell may not have been unpleasant to everyone as it mainly consisted of a coffee stench coming from one of the buildings, but thankfully I was through there nice and quick heading towards West Drayton where the route branched off to the north towards Watford. This section comprised the shortest part of the route as it was only 10km between the halfway point and final rest stop, and again the canal was lined with trees and other canal users were polite and friendly. Further along the route took us past Packet Boat Marina and then past a gorgeous little pub named The Shovel (I had to resist the temptation to create an extra rest stop by stopping for a sneaky pint – well it was almost midday!), and as I travelled through Uxbridge I passed possibly some of the most beautiful (and I’d imagine expensive) canal-side properties I’d encountered throughout the entire route. Before I knew it a diversion took me off the tow-path and I was surrounded by woodland as I reached rest-stop number 3 at Colne Valley Park – my final stop before tacking the last section.

Although I didn’t feel I spent long at this stop I must’ve sub-consciously loitered as the question “Are you still here?” from a Marshall prompted me to get a move on, and someone up above must’ve decided to make this section extra tough as just as I left the park the heavens opened and the rain began to fall. However, thanks to the combination of rest-stops and my fuelling strategy described earlier I wasn’t tired and I felt ready for the final section – even if it did continue to rain throughout! When planning for this event I’d expected the worst as this would be the longest section (15km from the final rest-stop to the finish) and I’d be encountering uncharted territory as I passed the magic Marathon distance of 42.2km, however despite the torrential rain attempting to dampen my spirits I felt that strange feeling of fear mixed with excitement I’d sensed in the air earlier that morning, and although the sky was grey I found myself running alongside lakes, nature reserves, fields and a whole range of canal vehicles ranging from small houseboats to what can only be described as ‘floating mansions’ providing a nice distraction as the kilometres flew by. As I passed through Rickmansworth the 45km marker came into sight and the realism set in that I was only 5km away from the finish – I was nearly there! Then it was 4km to go, 3km to go (move out of the way Geese!), 2km to go, the route diverted off the tow-path one final time and I entered Cassiobury Park as the finish line came into sight. I’d done it! My first Ultra completed, I could now officially call myself an Ultra-Marathon runner!

At the finish line - 50km

I crossed the finish line to applause from the Marshalls gathered there and was handed a huge bespoke medal, finishers T-shirt and a much appreciated glass of bubbly. After checking out a couple of the stalls within the finish area I went for what I can only describe as one of the most painful but also most appreciated complementary sports massages I’ve ever had at the end of a race – huge thanks to Chris of ‘Function Jigsaw Injury Performance Therapy’ – and writing this review a week later I’m sure I have Chris to thank for the fact I’m back up and running now after only a week’s recovery. I then visited the rest tent to take advantage of the free meal offered to all finishers, and I definitely wasn’t disappointed here either. Huge cooking pots offered various meal choices (I chose sweet and sour chicken with noodles and a huge blueberry muffin) and again there was also a huge selection of snacks for people passing through alongside sports drinks and water. After hanging around for a while to offer support to my fellow runners passing through as they continued along their journey (the walkers would’ve still been much further back along the course with a long way still ahead of them) it was a short walk to Watford station and time to head home.

Now I can’t speak for Stages 3 and 4 covering the final 50km from Watford to the 100km finish at Bletchley, but without a doubt the first 50km had been so beautiful, scenic and filled with friendly people and support from the Marshalls throughout, that even though it had taken me 5 hours 15 minutes to complete the distance it had flown by and been one of the most enjoyable events I’ve ever taken part in and will definitely remain memorable for a long time. Of course the route’s flatness had been a major bonus despite a number of locks and bridges along the route preventing it from being TOO flat, and the huge level of support and supplies at each of the rest stops had definitely helped break the distance down perfectly into manageable chunks. One minor complaint would be how the route was marked throughout with pink arrows attached to trees, fences and posts and I often found myself distracted by the sights along the canal and when I realised I wasn’t paying attention to the signs I found myself worrying I might’ve missed a sign as and was heading in the wrong direction. Thankfully I always encountered another sign further along the route which kept me on track but one lady at a rest stop told me she had run a few miles in the wrong direction before back-tracking, so maybe next time either more or slightly larger signs or a few Marshalls on the course at particularly confusing junctions would be a good idea, although considering how long the course is, it’s understandable how relying on signs rather than Marshalls is the preferable option.

House-boats on the canal

A few days later a post-event e-mail informed me just under 1000 participants registered for the various distances, and a couple of days later an e-mail certificate arrived congratulating me for completing the challenge and displaying my final finish time. Action Challenge’s page on Facebook and comments on the event page show how almost everyone who took part enjoyed the experience and once the aches and pains have dulled away I’m sure they’ll be back again to sign up for next year’s event or one of the other events Action Challenge offers. In total between £500,000 and £750,000 will be raised as a result of this event for various charities and registration for Grand Union Challenge 2015 opens at the end of July and I know I’ll be signing up again, although maybe I’ll attempt the 100km distance next time… but only if I get to call myself an Ultra-Ultra-Marathon runner!

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