Turning up the Heat at the Grand Union Canal Half Marathon

I chose to run the Grand Union Canal Half marathon as my third race this year, to help me get another step closer to achieving my ultimate goal of running 12 half marathons in 12 months.

I was really upset last November when I could not run this race due to a knee injury (patellofemoral syndrome, if you are itching to know), therefore I got very excited when Purple Patch Running put on a special spring date to celebrate the 10th year anniversary of this race. I was certainly among the first runners out of about 300 to sign up. Another reason I chose this race was the fact that I work in Watford so I already know the Grand Union Canal area quite well – being familiar with some of the territory ahead of race day is a definite advantage!

Let me say this upfront: if you are looking for a scenic and pancake flat race with definite PB potential, at the nicest time of the year, you should look no further. The race is also perfect for those who (like myself) are prone to getting lost, because it is a point to point route. The only direction you need to remember is running straight on until you reach the final mile! (Just in case though, there are plenty of signs and marshalls pointing you in the right direction should you find yourself in a dilemma of whether you need to run under or over the next bridge on the canal).

I arrived just in time to Cassiobury Park to take one of the final remaining spots in the car park and to hop on the first Purple Patch shuttle bus taking us runners to the starting point in Uxbridge, at Cowley Recreation Ground. The idea was to then run back to Cassiobury Park alongside the canal towpath. To soothe my pre-race nerves, I got into a conversation with a guy sitting next to me during the short journey, exchanging some running stories and discussing previous races and time goals. I think I was the first runner to pick up her race bib after hopping off the bus rather enthusiastically. That gave me plenty of time to get some water from the petrol station nearby and to get myself into a race ready state of mind whilst enjoying some sunshine on that exceptionally bright and beautiful morning. I was curious to discover more of the canal – when I run before work, I don’t have time for anything longer than 8-9 miles, so I had never got further than Croxley Green. I had about an hour to kill before we started, so I found out that the Grand Union canal is the longest one in the UK, linking London to Birmingham. It passes through rolling countryside, industrial towns and peaceful villages, making it the perfect place for running if you want to escape the traffic and the smog.

I’ve got this, baby!

We headed off at 10am in a staggered start which was a great idea to prevent crowding alongside the narrow canal tow path. We did a loop in the recreation ground to space us out a bit before getting onto the tow path itself to run back to Watford. Thankfully, I was able to run freely without constantly bumping into others or being tripped up, thanks to the low number of participants in the race. This enabled me to focus on my pace and allowed me to take in the views alongside the canal. My game plan was to run a fast first half and then play it by ear for the second half. I was doing quite well until about half way when I needed to answer nature’s call – fortunately, there are plenty of discreet opportunities along the route, or a few pubs if you prefer something more civilised and don’t mind queuing. Unfortunately, that was also the point when I started to run out of energy. I put this down to a number of facts: I had not had much time to train for the race due to being extremely busy at work; it was the wrong time of the month (#femalerunnerproblems), and a poor fuelling strategy. This time I only brought along to the ride some coca cola flavoured jelly shots by PowerBar, only to realise that I couldn’t run and chew at the same time! Who would have thought LOL. I think I will just continue to stick to gels such as that luxurious  ‘Chocolate Outrage’ energy gel by GU which saved the day at the Ridge Offroader Half Marathon last month. Oh, delicious memories. But I digress.

Got my game face on!

After establishing that I was not going to be able to run a fast second half, I switched into a more relaxed pace, taking in more of the views. The canalside has a peaceful and seemingly idyllic micro-community of boaters, anglers, cyclists and walkers. My Hubby and I have been fantasising about hiring a canal boat for ourselves and setting off on an adventure like Timothy West and Prunella Scale in the TV programme ‘Great Canal Journeys’. (Gosh, I know we are so old-school!). Seriously, I think I would quite enjoy this simple gypsy life for a while, getting away from the noise, the crowds, the digital world and the rat race of modern life. Imagine a life where you wake up to a new view every morning and you go whenever you like, wherever you like. I’m probably romanticising things as reality might be less comfortable and I am quite sure I would get grumpy very easily without WiFi and hot water!

The main challenge during the race was the fact that the temperatures started to rise quite steadily after we set off, so I was grateful I had my water with me, despite that there were plenty of well-placed water stations along the route. It turns out that it was the hottest day so far in 2017! Some runners were visibly struggling in the heat, even slowing down to a walk. I have to admit that it was quite tempting to follow suit but I knew that by walking I would only make the struggle last longer. Fortunately, as we were getting nearer the familiar stretches of the canal I regularly run on, I managed to get my mojo back. The final mile felt like the longest ever mile of my entire life and the uphill section within the park did not exactly help lift my spirits! After reaching the big bridge leading into Cassiobury Park, all I could think about was spotting the finish sign whilst trying to dodge the casual strollers in the park.

The final sprint!

In the end, I managed a sprint finish, well under two hours, which was my main goal. I would have loved to complete the race a bit faster, however, I have to accept that without much training, this is the best I can manage. Having a baseline fitness which enables me to run a sub 2 hour half marathon is not a bad starting point, though. I later found out that I could have come first in my age/gender category had I repeated my personal best time from the Budapest Half Marathon. Now that’s some motivation for the races ahead!

A coffee and a couple of finisher selfies later, I drove myself back home to enjoy a well-earnt BBQ with my family in the garden.

What races have you got coming up next? Have you also done the Grand Union Half Marathon? If so, what did you think about it?

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