Grand Union Canal Race – England

Now in its nineteenth installment, the 145-mile Grand Union Canal Race (GUCR) is a race that captures the imagination of ultrarunners who’ve witnessed it and it’s considered to be one of the classic ultras in England. Given it’s basically a flat run along a canal path, it doesn’t have mountains or dramatic scenery, but it creates a unique atmosphere that fosters a loyal following. The GUCR is a small event, limited to 90 runners on a first come, first served basis and is held over the bank holiday three-day weekend at the end of May.

Course
The race covers the 145-mile trail from the Britain’s second largest city, Birmingham, to London on the Grand Union Canal towpath with a 45-hour cut-off. This route is an amalgamation of several canal systems, created in its current form in 1929 to better compete for business transportation cargo with the road system. Several other races use portions of the GUC, especially near London, but none are as long as the GUCR.

Grand Union Canal Run - sign

It’s hard to get lost on the Grand Union course. Photo: James Adams

Given this is a canal towpath, it’s an effectively flat route on non-technical trails with some paved sections. It doesn’t have race markings although there are canal signs and the general rule is if you can’t see water then you’re probably lost. Maps are required but the main place you can go off course is near London where a left turn off the wider expanse of water is required at Bull’s Bridge, about a half marathon from the finish at Little Venice.

Dangerous animals are not a risk, although hissing geese with newborn chicks have been known to temporarily hold up runners. Other unique features include the chance to race barges (they move at five miles per hour) and dodging drunk locals celebrating the three-day weekend and shouting original thoughts like, “Run, Forrest, Run.” (None of us have ever heard that before.) When fatigued at night there’s certainly a small risk of falling in the canal, too.

Grand Union Canal Run - map

The course map.

Runners are recommended to have their own support crews, but up to 40 unsupported runners can be catered for by the organizers for an additional fee. Aid stations are few and far between with only nine along the 145 miles, compared to 24 along the Western States 100 route over a shorter distance. Crews are allowed throughout but pacers can only join runners from mile 70. An unusual rule is that resting for more than 40 minutes at a time is not permitted so there can be no long snoozing at aid stations despite the race lasting up to two days.

The Men’s And Women’s Fields
The main focus of the race is the experience and it doesn’t generally attract a deep field, although often members of the Great Britain 24-hour team attend. Last year it was won outright by Debbie Martin-Consani in a female course record.

Grand Union Canal Run - runners

Runners and spectators enjoying the event. Photo: James Adams

Course Records

  • Men: Pat Robbins – 25:37 (2011)
  • Women: Debbie Martin-Consani – 28:01 (2012)

There are 6 comments

  1. KenZ

    Having run sections of various canals, especially around the Milton Keynes area, I would say that there definitely dangerous animals along the way in the form of canal boater's dogs! On a per-day of living in an area basis, my dog bite/chased score in the UK is about a factor of 10 above the US. Some of the canal dogs view any area around their boat as their property, and are very aggressive, especially around dust, dawn, and night when they don't normally see walkers. Running the UK canals at night by headlamp is a truly magical experience to be sure, but not entirely relaxing all the time.

    All that said, many of my runs along the canal towpaths are some of the most magical and peaceful I've ever had. You get these idyllic (almost twee, if you will) scenes that just flow and you cruise the flats. Take Ian's second photo, remove the extra people, add some geese and goslings paddling along, a stone bridge crossing, and perhaps a long-pole fisherman, and it's as close to heaven as one can expect.

  2. Andrew

    Agreed re peaceful running!

    Have run along the canals in London and it's easy to lose oneself and just go on and on.

  3. Simon

    At the moment Mimi Anderson is running a double – she's running from the finish to the start, ready to run the race! She's nearly at Birmingham last I saw – you can track her progress on Twitter @Marvellousmimi

  4. Alicia

    I tried this for my first ultra. I dropped out, not too surprisingly–I hadn't learned yet that you could walk in ultras! The constant flatness was brutal too; I've never had such bad shin splints in my life, and my ITBs were never the same again. It was a nice atmosphere though, and if it weren't for the potentially injury-inducing flatness, I would go back and give it another go.

  5. Sam Collins

    I used to live near the Grand Union Canal many years ago (Leighton Buzzard, you'll find it on the map above!) but in those days never thought about running along it. I live in London now and do most of my training by running along the canal that leads into Limehouse Basin and Wapping. I know that the rush hour madness is above me but on the towpath I'm in my own peaceful bubble. It's a calming, therapeutic start to the day.

  6. Matt P

    The GUCR now has a sister event of sorts in Maryland's C&O Canal 100 http://cocanal100.com/. The inaugural C&O run was this year, and I'm sorry to have missed it this time. Someone should shoot for a GUCR / C&O double–crown them the King or Queen of Canals.

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