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Britain’s Grand Union Canal Race is deceptively pastoral

The GUCR, though not technical, is still one of Britain's most gruelling ultras


The charmingly pretty English countryside that runners ran through in Britain’s Grand Union Canal Race last weekend and the typical British reserve with which this race is celebrated are somewhat deceiving. The course follows Britain’s longest canal from Birmingham to London, a distance of 145 miles, along the Grand Union Canal Towpath. 

Despite the pastoral scenery, this is one of Britain’s longest continuous and most gruelling ultramarathons, and its 145 miles are unrelentingly flat, giving no relief to muscle groups that might be spared by the variety of a more technical course. Further, there is a 45-hour time limit, so there is no lollygagging over tea. The weather this year was hot and humid, and there were thunderstorms at night. 


The race is run by serious trail racers like course record-holder Daniel Lawson, who was not present this year since he was busy competing in the 24 Hours European Championships in Romania (also known as the Euro 24), which he won in 2016. Lawson’s record for GUCR is 22:16, set in 2015.

Ninety-eight runners started in Birmingham on Saturday. Fifty-four finished inside the 45-hour cutoff. The winner was Paul Maskell, who was leading from 70 miles on, in an astonishingly fast 25 hours 35 minutes. The women’s race was won by Katrin Grieger in 31 hours 47 minutes.


More GUCR lore from this year’s race: Mark Thornberry couldn’t run last year because of a liver cancer diagnosis, but later last year he ran the full route over three days to raise money for research into treatments for his disease. He wasn’t expected to live to run this year’s race,  but he made it to the start line-and he was one of the finishers, completing the race with 50 minutes to spare. Thornberry has now raised £75,000 for research into treatments for liver disease.