The Race and Preparation
The concept of doing a big run began in Australia at the end of 2013. Although I’ve been running for nearly 20 years and have completed many ultramarathons (technically speaking, any race over the 26.2 distance of a standard marathon), I’d picked up a calf injury in October 2013, which kept me off running for a couple of interminably boring months. We were heading to Australia for a family holiday straight after Christmas so I’d resolved to start training again in the warm weather.
Training in the warm weather went well and on return to the slightly less warm Isle of Man winter I decided to look for my ‘A’ race of the year. Many ultra-runners complete several monstrously long runs a year but I tend to concentrate my efforts on one main race; tailoring my training towards peaking once over a 12 month period. So it was that I surfed a few of the websites that were offering various lengths of punishment; a 60 miler in Suffolk, a 100 mile coastal run, a 130 mile canal race……..all very tempting but my personal best, as it were, was when I ran 134.5 miles at a 24 hour race in 2009. Hang on though, what’s this one? The T184. Never heard of it. I’ll just have a quick look at the website (www.t184.co.uk).
It’s worth pointing out that the reason I got into running ultramarathons was because when I was training for my first marathon, the London Marathon, in 1998 I’d read that it was a good idea to run a 20 mile race a few weeks before the big event. I went to my local running shop, found an entry form and took it home to fill out and post to the race organiser (that’s how we used to do it before the internet). Once home I sat and looked at the form and discovered that it was for a 20 mile race or a 40 mile race. Every time I looked at the words “40 mile race” I got a little shot of adrenaline, butterflies in the stomach and a sense of awe. Surely no-one could race for 40 miles. That was beyond reason. I sat and stared at the form getting more and more adrenalized until I filled it in and entered. The 40 mile race. Four weeks before my first marathon. Sensible. Really sensible.
To cut a long story short, I realised at the end of that 40 miles that the high experienced as one crosses the finish line is proportional to the difficulty and levels of suffering endured throughout the race. I was hooked.
As the T184 website flicked up onto my computer screen, and I realised that it was a 184 mile run along the length of the Thames Path, I got a familiar feeling. That shot of adrenaline, the butterflies and the awe were paying a visit. But wait, it’s not just running 184 miles, which is hard enough on it’s own, it’s self sufficient. This means that runners aren’t allowed support crews or any outside help. Everyone has to carry food, spare kit, medical supplies, sleeping equipment and everything that you’d need to race continuously for up to three and a half days, with the exception of water, which would be provided at each of the 7 checkpoints and the standpipes at various locations along the length of the river. Now this was an ultramarathon of epic proportions. As my adrenal glands worked overtime to keep up with demand I contacted the race organiser to confirm that it really was going to be this difficult and entered the race. Due to start on Friday 22nd August the inaugural T184 race had a time limit of 80 hours. I had 8 months to train.
Training went well through the year. I built my mileage up to just over 50 miles a week and my long runs increased to a maximum of 32 miles 4 weeks out from the race. I’d bought myself a running specific rucksack early on in the year and I did almost all of my weekly long runs with weight on my back. I’d carted around anything from firewood to empty champagne bottles to phone books, as long as it provided ballast to help me become accustomed to the extra rigours of running with a pack. This proved to be the wisest aspect of my training as I not only conditioned myself to running with weight on my back, I learned where to tape in order to prevent rubs and how best to carry fluids.
Nutrition was going to be an interesting prospect as I was going to have to carry every calorie I was going to eat. To this end, I’d spent the year eating lots of fatty foods (nuts, seeds, cheese and my new favourite athletes’ superfood: Pork Scratchings) and I’d cut down on my carbohydrate intake, especially sugar. The plan was to train myself to use fat calories as fuel rather than carbohydrate calories. By doing this I managed to cut the weight of food down massively and most of what I packed was either nut or coconut based.
After a 7.00am alarm call in a hotel room in Woolwich I carefully packed all my kit and food into my pack, put on the kit that I’d be wearing for the next few days and walked the half mile to the Thames Flood Barrier Visitors Centre, where the race was due to start. This was it. After 8 months of planning and training it was nearly time to put myself to the ultimate test.
The Start to Checkpoint 1
As with the start of any ultramarathon, every other competitor looks to be fitter, more experienced, better prepared and have all the latest equipment. Fortunately there is an unwritten rule that most of the runners abide by: do not discuss training in case the person you’re talking to has done more than you and you end up psychologically shot before the gun goes off. So the chat was the normal sort of gallows humour that you’d expect before subjecting yourself to such suffering and punishment.
After a short race briefing we gathered on the path next to the murky River Thames and at 10:30am on Friday 22nd August 2014, we set of upstream.
We were due to run past some of London’s most iconic sites but the first 4 miles were, it has to be said, sadly disappointing. We ran around and through the drabbest industrial areas that London had to offer. Never mind, here comes the famous O2 Arena. No, that was drab too. We got to see all the tradesmen entrances. Just as the surroundings started to improve we passed the first of something that was to plague us on and off for virtually the entire race. We had to run straight past a beautiful riverside pub that had its doors invitingly open to reveal a haven of refreshment and enjoyment. We’d be having none of that; this race was self sufficient so the rules clearly state that there is no nicking of pints of beer or bacon baps from riverside pub tables. Fortunately the sight of the beautifully restored Cutty Sark distracted us from the pub and we headed into the Greenwich tunnel for our one and only trip under the river.
By this stage I was running with, amongst others, a guy called Richard Hurdle. It’s funny in these races but you tend to do a quick look around and judge other runners by their kit and pace in order to try and form alliances, even if only temporary, with runners who are of a similar standard and attitude. Richard looked like he’d be a good one to tag along with so we did our introductions and trotted on. The miles seemed to pass reasonably quickly with our conversations on life, running, the universe, running, race strategies and running. In no time at all we were into London proper: Tower Bridge, the Embankment, Westminster, etc. With this increase in history and culture came an increase in crowds. I’m sure by the time we’d weaved around the pavement to thread our way onwards we’d done considerable extra mileage but it could have been the rising inner city temperatures making things seem harder work. Either way Richard managed to run headlong into a Japanese tourist under Tower Bridge but deftly caught her, apologised and carried on his way in one smooth movement.
We continued on past Westminster, where we were reduced to a walk due to the density of the crowds. I’m sure we probably managed to ruin a few tourist photos but we had no time to stop and pose properly. There was a welcome sight in a park just past Fulham’s Craven Cottage ground; a tap. We stopped briefly to fill our bottles: I thought I was last in the queue, but a huge, grey Great Dane was waiting patiently behind me. He wasn’t in the race so he obviously wasn’t that bothered.
By this stage there was a group of 4 of us who were trotting steadily past some of the capital’s finest real estate. A doorman, resplendent in top hat and tails looked rather concerned as we headed towards him and relieved as we headed around the side of the hotel and back to the river’s edge. A short while after this we passed our first lock and just after that was checkpoint 1. We arrived at about 3.30pm. That was the first 26 miles done in 5 hours. Not the world’s quickest marathon, but under the circumstances, probably a bit quicker than we’d have planned given that there was still the equivalent of 6 marathons left to go.
Checkpoint 1 to Checkpoint 3: the first night
Richard and I had, by this stage, realised that we were both going at a similar pace and, as we were feeling pretty good, didn’t hang around at the first checkpoint. It’s worth noting that checkpoints in normal ultramarathons are real oases in between barren stretches of emptiness, supplying cakes, snacks, hot and cold drinks: a veritable smorgasboard of sustenance for weary runners. This however was the T184. This was all about self sufficiency. This checkpoint, after having slogged 26 miles through the nation’s capital provided……..water. It really wasn’t worth stopping that long for.
We topped up our bottles and I transferred some food from the main rucksack compartment into the side pockets, for ease of access. There were a few other runners there in varying states of discomfort, probably feeling the effects of going off too quickly with full packs on the hard running surface of London’s pavements. We both felt good and set off back to the river. It wasn’t long before we managed to lose the river though. We both knew where it was but we had to refer to our maps to find a route back to it. Rather unfortunately our route back to the riverside involved an extra bit of road running as we had missed the turn into a nice soft grassy park. We had now got into a run/walk pattern that saved our feet and legs a bit. The 5 minute walk sections were preceded by2 minutes of faster running to try and use different muscles in different ways and break the monotony of plodding ever onwards at the same pace.
Once we got to Teddington Lock it felt as though we were on a proper riverside path rather than running through a city. It was mainly a gravel path, which seemed far nicer on the legs and feet. As we passed the jaw-droppingly beautiful Hampton Court we were aware that we both had limited supplies of fluid left. We thought we would be okay to get to Mosely Lock but didn’t know if there would be a standpipe there or not.
As we approached Hampton Court Pier Richard stopped to ask a chap, who was fishing, if he could direct us to the nearest available tap. After hearing that this pair of sweat drenched nutters were on their way to Cirencester he took pity on us and lead us through a green gate into his kitchen and filled our bottles to the brim. What a gent! Four other runners arrived as we were heading back onto the path so our new friend Les sorted them out too. In fact he could have been going most of the evening for all I know. Fortunately it didn’t look as though he was catching many fish anyway.
We hit the trail again with a spring in our step and fully hydrated. Another bonus was the fact that the temperature was dropping to more bearable levels (maybe it’s because I come from the Isle of Man but London always seems airless and hot). All in all it was very pleasant as we headed upstream towards Sunbury.
Richard was far more organised than I was and he had a small camping stove and some packets of proper adventure food. He’d also brought a couple of sachets of coffee, which he was happy to share with me. Funnily enough he didn’t fancy any of my home made flapjack, although he did accept some sun dried banana later on in the race. Our first proper pit stop was at Chertsey Lock. The beautifully manicured lawn area was like sitting on a soft sprung mattress. However, it was a beautifully manicured lawn area because no-one was allowed on it as we found out when the lock-keeper turfed (no pun intended) us off. Never mind, we were getting used to concrete anyway. Water bottles topped up and bellies not exactly full but somewhat nourished, we headed off into the darkening night.
Having been very warm through much off the day the drop in temperature once the sun went in was startling. We soon learned that this was because we were running next to a river. I was soon wearing 4 layers. We had both planned to try and keep moving as much as possible through the nights, in order to stay as warm as possible and because we had both only brought bivvy bags with us. The thinking here was that a full sleeping bag was both bulky and significant extra weight. By having periodic kips when it was warm and running when it was cold we’d both reasoned that we could save valuable luggage allowances.
Navigation should have been simple: follow the dirty great big river. As with everything in life, nothing ever is quite that straightforward. In the dark it only takes a short distance and you’ve lost it. If it’s not within your head-torches’ beam it may as well have been in a different county. The approach to checkpoint 2, at Old Windsor, lead us onto a road, away from the river. Looking at the maps it felt as if we had missed the checkpoint so we doubled back along the river. When we made it as far as the point where we had turned off onto the road we realised that we hadn’t missed the checkpoint and retraced our steps. Having finally located the checkpoint, at 10.15pm, we rued the fact that we’d just done an extra half mile. As if 184 miles wasn’t enough!
Checkpoint 2 was another reasonably rapid affair. They just aren’t the same when there’s no cake. We’d had a shower of rain on the lead up to the checkpoint and we weren’t in a hurry to sit for too long and get cold. Having covered 52 miles the next leg was slightly longer than the first 2. The next checkpoint, at Henley, was 28 miles away and we’d been going for just over 12 hours.
I was happy to keep going but Richard suggested a 30 minute power nap at Boveney Lock. I surprised myself when I readily agreed with him and we chose a park bench each. I curled up under my foil blanket and surprised myself again when I nodded off in seconds. Whilst the sleep was fitful and very cold it did the job. Once we were packed up and back on the trail again we were travelling noticeably faster than we were prior to our sleep.
It’s fair to say that the night seemed to go on for a very long time and the 28 miles seemed like considerably further. Too cold to stop for any length of time and too tired to travel at a pace that was befitting of a normal race, we just kept walking as best we could. The couple of hours before dawn were brutally cold. A heavy mist hung across the river and the adjacent fields. The dew had soaked the grass and my feet were saturated. I could also feel that there were blisters beginning to appear. We were both willing the sun to come up to warm our bones and allow us to see exactly where we were. Eventually, when it did peek out from the Eastern horizon, we were treated to a sunrise that was utterly beautiful. As the sun made its way into the sky we made our way past the magnificent Culham Court, with its stunning vistas of the river valley and expertly managed gardens.
We stopped in the smoking shelter of a country pub and I took my left shoe and sock off. I couldn’t actually see a blister as such but all was not well with the sole of my foot. I bodged a bit of tape onto it in the vain hope that it would be painfree for the next 100 miles and set off past the paddocks that host the annual Henley Regatta. It’s a good job that the marquees and corporate hospitality tents were gone as a pair of grubby, smelly, unshaven runners would have severely lowered the tone. The good thing was though; we could see Henley and we were nearly at checkpoint 3.
Day 2: Checkpoint 3 to Purgatory
On arrival at checkpoint 3, at 7.50am, we were aware that just about every bench within 100 yards had a runner in a sleeping bag on it. We had decided that it would be a good opportunity to make up a few places if we had a quick bite to eat, a coffee and then get going. I was a little disappointed that there were no toilet facilities at the checkpoint. It had been and was to be an ongoing theme throughout the race; the fact that the toilets at the locks were only open during normal work hours, when I didn’t need to go.
We pressed on, feeling a lot happier now that we had warmed up and could see where we were going. I was however, fighting that gnawing feeling in my stomach that signalled a stop was soon due. As we approached Shiplake Lock we could see the Lock-keeper. This was a relief as he could direct us to the lock’s wonderfully equipped facilities. “I’m really sorry, I don’t normally work here and I haven’t got the key” was not the response I was either looking or hoping for. “There’s definitely a toilet at the next lock, Sonning, and I can guarantee it’ll be open”. If ever there was a sentence that was so full of hope but hope that seemed so far off, that was it. Still, at least we made good time for the next 3 miles and I fair raced the last 100 yards.
The lock-keeper at Sonning was very interested in the race and he said he was expecting runners as he’d had an e-mail warning him of the impending hordes of lycra-clad nutters. To be fair, at 87 miles he was probably a bit far along to expect hordes. The drop out rate was already climbing rapidly, with barely half the runners that started leaving checkpoint 3.
The beautiful countryside soon gave way to the hubbub of Reading and the exuberance of the Reading Festival crowds. Following nubile, scantily clad, welly-wearing festival goers was certainly a distraction. I couldn’t say it was a welcome distraction as there were thousands of people all wanting to walk on my Path: I’d laid a certain amount of claim to it having spent nearly 24 hours on it. At least they were all sober, although I had to admire the honesty of a local vagrant who was petitioning the crowds with a “Could you spare some change so I can go and get Sh**faced?”
Once we were clear of the festival site we were treated to a gnarly, uneven, concrete path that did nothing for sore and bruised feet and really tested my blisters to the limit. I am genuinely unaware as to how long this went on for as things were beginning to become a bit of a blur. We managed to go past the halfway point at some stage and then felt peeved that we hadn’t marked it with a high five and a whoop.
Richard was flagging at this stage. We had agreed to have a good sleep at on the pub lawn at checkpoint 4 and we weren’t far off now. The best thing about teaming up with another runner in races like this is that when one starts to suffer, the other can take a lead role to cajole and motivate until the low point is passed. Having swapped a few times it was my turn to encourage Richard on towards the checkpoint at Streatley. He was ready to lie in the middle of the path but we kept going. I’d noticed at this stage that Richard was walking consistently on the far side of the path to the river. He was that sleepy he was worried that he might fall in. It transpires that another competitor’s race ended here when he did trip and take a dip in the Thames. He was fine but it was race over for him.
We battled through to Streatley and found the checkpoint at the back of the pub. I was surprised how emotional I was and it felt as though I’d finished. I had to quickly remind myself that there was still 84 miles to go, the job was far from done and any over-blown sense of achievement had to be packed away for much later.
It was 1.55pm when we arrived and the sun was warm. I spied a tree and thought that the shade would be a great place to have a sleep, so as not to get sun burnt. We’d agreed that we’d have one and a half hours sleep here. It was longer than we’d hoped for but necessary given our levels of tiredness.
My fears of overheating whilst asleep proved unfounded as I woke a few times, freezing cold, trying to wrap my foil blanket around me more securely. After the allotted 90 minutes slumber the marshal, Janine, woke us as requested. I’d used my rucksack as a pillow and managed to drool profusely all over it. I was ready to get going again as I’d cooled off far more than I thought I would and there was a group of runners coming into the checkpoint and whilst we weren’t overly worried about what place we would finish in, it would be good if we could stay in front of as many others as possible. It was a race after all.
We found out later that this checkpoint, located 100 miles into the race, became known as “The Graveyard” as large numbers of runners decided that their race was done here. Whether it was the toll of heavy packs or the physical demands of running 100 miles, the thought of another 84 miles or the 30 miles that lay between this and the next checkpoint, this was the end point for several of the hardy souls who had laboured for a day and a half. They might not have finished but it was still one heck of an effort.
Within 20 minutes of setting off from checkpoint 4 the weather turned and a heavy shower set in. Much as I’d found the heat uncomfortable I far preferred it to getting rained on. Fortunately for us the shower passed within 15 minutes of starting and the sun came out strongly. Rather less fortunately for the runners who came in to checkpoint 4 as we were leaving it was sufficient to prevent them from getting their much sought after rest and they followed on some 20 minutes after us.
As we trudged on we had resigned ourselves to walking. Running at this stage was seemingly impossible and we had to have enough reserves to see us through the whole next day and possibly the Sunday night. Our spirits were reasonably high and although our progress was slow, it was steady. As the light began to fade we decided that the best chance of getting through the next night was if we topped up on our sleep before it got too cold. I was slightly annoyed with myself as this was far more sleep than I thought I’d need but it felt like it was the right thing to do.
The temperature had already begun its nightly plummet so, when we’d found a nice soft looking patch of grass at Day’s Lock I got my full bivvy bag out. Setting a new record in the speed at which it took to fall asleep I found the bivvy bag much warmer and more comfortable than the foil blanket that I’d wrapped myself in for the previous 2 sleeps. After 30 minutes I heard a voice next to me say “shall we do another 30?”, and before I could even process the question my voice had said yes and I was asleep again.
Richard’s countdown timer on his watch was most effective and once the hour was up we climbed out of our bivvy bags to pack our gear away into the rucksacks. It was now that I realised another one of those irrefutable laws of running a race like this: the warmer your sleeping arrangements the colder it feels when you climb out of them. Shivering uncontrollably I packed my things away as quickly as I could and we got going soon after. We had been passed by the group of 4 runners who missed out on their sleep at Streatley but we soon caught them and overtook. Our pace was good but we were still walking. We had to try and maintain some momentum as it really was getting very cold.
Another navigational blip lead to us being passed by 2 of the others and we caught up with them before travelling together for a short while near Abingdon. We pressed on into the deep of the night and headlong into what can only be described as our collective nadir.
Night 2 and the Miraculous Rescue
The path on the section from Abingdon to Oxford was horrendous. A combination of being overgrown with, amongst other things, stinging nettles, being very uneven underfoot, the temperature dropping to around 5°C and it being through the middle of the night and very dark, made for tough going. I was struggling with my blisters at this stage and was finding the uneven nature of the path was causing my feet to slip around inside my shoes, thus exacerbating the problem. We weren’t having fun.
In order to lighten the mood somewhat Richard put his ipod on and began to sing. Credit where credit’s due: he was not only holding a tune he was providing us with some real anthems that I could sing along with too. The Fountains of Wayne’s “Stacey’s Mom” was soon followed by Billy Joel’s ironically titled “River of Dreams” (although we did manage a few alternative lyrics, which weren’t quite so complimentary towards our adopted river). Even with all of this frivolity, it was still tortuous.
As we got nearer to Oxford the path finally became wider and flatter. We followed the river around a field and the dense, cold mist made visibility difficult. I was desperately tired but not wanting to stop due to the temperature. It was really a case of one foot in front of the other at this stage and I chanted, “Can’t stop. Too cold” over and over to try and drive myself forward. The thought of the checkpoint being less than 2 miles away was the only thing that was keeping me going.
A large underpass signalled that we were nearly at Oxford and as we walked under the A423 we noticed that the underpass provided a sudden increase in temperature. The plan was to get to the checkpoint and see if there was anywhere there that was under cover where we could sleep but here we were standing under a ready made shelter that was several degrees warmer than what we’d experienced for the last few hours. We had a brief discussion about whether we should sleep here for an hour and, even though I was desperate for a nap, I couldn’t help but feel that this wasn’t the place to do it. The broken bottles, the smell of wee and the graffiti made me feel decidedly uneasy about spending any time unconscious in this location. We moved on with a resolve to get to the checkpoint and rest there.
The beauty of the City of Oxford was totally lost on me. It was dark, it was cold, it was deserted and I wanted to be through to the far side of it where the checkpoint was. One bridge lead to another and the expectation of seeing the checkpoint round the next corner seemingly lasted for a dozen or more corners. Eventually we reached Osney Lock and the van that marked checkpoint 5. The marshals who were manning the checkpoint were fast asleep; one in the van and one in a nearby car. It took us a while to wake them but there was certainly no begrudging them sleep at this hour of the day. It was 4.05am.
As we sat on the bench next to the van, a number of things became apparent: There was nowhere under cover to sleep, my blisters were not looking or feeling good but were beyond the stage that I could do much with them and we didn’t need to top up with water as neither of us had shed a bead of sweat for some considerable time. The stop had cooled me down even more and although I had every one of my 5 layers on I rifled through my rucksack to find the emergency foil blanket to wrap around my shoulders. In an incredibly agile manoeuvre, considering the stage of the race, and with a little help from Richard, I managed to get my rucksack over the top of my foil blanket. And with a bit of banter from the marshals about my resemblance to a silver tracksuit wearing, disgraced former DJ, we were off.
Normally, when leaving a checkpoint in races, one feels at least a bit refreshed. I can honestly say that within 2 minutes of heading off on the next section I was back fighting unconsciousness and just trying to keep forward motion. It seemed darker than ever, just as cold as it has been and my blisters were taking their time to settle into a desensitised state that would allow me a normal gait. There appeared to be water on both sides of us and I was wondering if I’d started to hallucinate but Richard reassured me by explaining that there was a disused canal on one side and the river on the other. As we approached a footbridge that would take us back to the left side of the river I heard a banging sound coming from a nearby boatyard. I thought that it must be a pretty important order to be making boats at this time of day. There was an exterior light on and as we neared the boatyard a figure ran out to us.
“Help me, I’m freezing!” shouted a bedraggled, wet, Polish girl named Kate. It was obvious that she’d been in the river and, as she was only wearing a halter-neck type t-shirt and trousers, she needed help. Banishing my, “you’ve got to be joking, we’re in a race” thought to the dustbin of my mind I looked down at my natty silver number that was wrapped around my shoulders. Well, wouldn’t you know it, an emergency blanket! “Errr, you’d best have this”, I said, as I wrapped it around her exposed shoulders.
“Aaah, that’s feels better”, she said as Richard started to rummage into his rucksack for another emergency blanket. We had both woken up by now and had grasped the gravity of the situation. This girl needed more than a couple of foil blankets as she was in a reasonably advanced state of hypothermia.
She gave us the phone number for her boyfriend who, as it turns out, had reported her missing to the police. This would have been the answer had any of the four of us known where we were. I could pinpoint our location on the enlarged, photocopied map that we had been issued with at the start of the race but unfortunately it didn’t have the grid numbers on it. Both Kate and her boyfriend were new to Oxford and didn’t know their way around. In fact, bless her, Kate couldn’t even remember where she’d fallen into the river so wasn’t a lot of help with directions.
It became obvious that she needed medical attention so I called 999 and had probably one of the stranger calls to ambulance control that they had received that night:
“Ambulance, how can I help?”
“This is going to sound strange but please bear with me.”
“We’re in a running race along the Thames and we’ve come from London. We are in our second night and we’ve got to Oxford and found a girl who’s fallen in the river. She’s out now but she’s freezing cold and looks like she’s properly hypothermic. It’s okay as she’s got emergency blankets on but she could use an ambulance.”
“Okay, where are you?”
“That’s the other thing…….we haven’t got a clue, other than: Bossom’s Boatyard.”
“I’ll see if I can find it.”
Then, by a stroke of pure genius, Richard spotted a noticeboard that had the postcode of Bossom’s Boatyard on it. I relayed this information to the bemused controller and she found our location.
The ambulance and first responder were there in super quick time but unfortunately the gates at the end of the lane were locked. As much as I stood there flashing my head torch and they flashed their blue lights back at me we weren’t getting any closer. There was no alternative, I had to run the half mile to meet them and then walk back to the boatyard to find a very relieved Richard who thought I was having a nap in the back of a warm ambulance.
We handed our patient over to the paramedics and waved goodbye to our emergency blankets. Fortunately we’d managed to do a swap for a brand new, NHS special, emergency blanket. Apparently, after 4 hours in hospital, Kate was discharged none the worse for wear. The race organiser had been contacted and informed of our non-race medical emergency and kindly deducted the 45 minutes that our excursion took from our finishing time.
Walking back along the riverside path I was glad Richard had been present as I’m sure I’d have put the whole episode down to a particularly bizarre hallucination had I been alone. It really was an incredible turn of events: firstly, she was over half a mile from any houses, didn’t have a clue where she was and had decided that the only tactic was to frantically bang on the door of a deserted boat builders; secondly, it was 4.50am on a bank holiday Sunday when we came across her; thirdly, of all the people to stumble upon at such an early hour in such a deserted place, she came across two nutters who had run from London, one of whom was wearing an emergency blanket and both of whom had full emergency kit about their persons. If we had been 10 minutes earlier or 10 minutes later, if we’d have slept when we found the underpass, if we’d have been quicker or slower over any of the previous 132 miles we’d have missed her, she’d have been in the cold for a good deal longer and who knows what the outcome would have been?
And as the sun came up and began to warm the day we laughed between ourselves that our answer to the question: “What did you do this weekend?” would be along the lines of “Oh, I ran 184 miles and saved a life. How about you?”
Day 3: The last two checkpoints
Buoyed by our life-saving exploits we pushed on towards our goal. The respite that being heroes had on our tiredness was short lived and no sooner had the sun come up I was trudging in a semi-conscious state once more. Desperate for a place to rest up for a short while we reached Kings Lock and discovered 5 star accommodation that was vacant and ready for us. A fully decked, three-quarters enclosed educational shack, with pictures of waterfowl and working parties who had renovated the lock a number of years ago lay before us. The Hilton couldn’t have made me any happier (for one thing we’d never have been allowed in looking and smelling as we did).
The 45 minute nap seemed to go very quickly and as I shivered violently whilst trying to get my kit stuffed back into my rucksack (all semblance of order in there was long gone) a fleeting thought whizzed across my mind: “Why am I doing this? It would be so easy just to drop now and I could warm up somewhere comfortable.” Fortunately, as quickly as it came, it went and we headed out into the sun where I warmed up in minutes.
There followed a period that I found difficult. The path was good, the weather was ideal and we weren’t getting lost. The problem that I was battling with was our speed. Not that I felt I could do anything about it but the more we slowed the more we had to revise our predicted finishing time. Our calculations, based on the speed we were travelling at, meant that our finish time was going to be around midnight. I struggled to get my head around this as I’d thought, when I’d looked into the race, that I’d be crossing the line sometime during the day on Sunday. This was a massive readjustment for me and in my head the finish had just moved further away.
Having confidently predicted a finish time somewhere between 11.00pm and 2.00am I called my wife to work out pick up arrangements. She and my 7 year old son had stayed on for 2 days seeing the sights in London. If they came to see me finish at 2.00am and we then had to drive the two and a half hours back to Northampton, where we were staying with my parents, that would be pretty tough on all of us. Richard had offered me a bed at his house, 10 miles from the finish, and it made more sense to take him up on his offer and get picked up later on in the day after I’d had a good sleep. As I explained all of this to her she said that she’d work something out and that we’d talk nearer the end. She asked how we were getting on and as I tried to explain how hard it was my voice began to wobble and my eyes filled up. Just about holding it together I said goodbye and then confessed to Richard that I’d nearly lost it on the phone. He’d spotted that I had been getting a bit emotional and comforted me with some kind words, “You want to save your electrolytes mate”. Tears are full of salt and water and I’d be needing both so it was sage advice. The humour rescued the situation and our moods lightened.
The going was reasonably pleasant throughout the rest of the morning. It all went by in a bit of a blur and as we headed ever nearer to checkpoint 6, at Radcot, something rather amazing happened: we started to run. I can’t remember who suggested it but I can remember thinking that the pain from my blisters was far less when we jogged for a short while and much worse when we stopped to walk again. Richard’s feet weren’t as badly blistered as mine but he was still pretty sore from the relentless pounding. He found the same phenomenon and so we began to run. It was a very steady jog but it was considerably quicker than the walking that we had been managing. For 2 miles we ran, all the way to the checkpoint where the marshals commented on how fresh we were looking. Oh, how looks can deceive!
Richard’s brother and family members appeared out of a pub and provided ample encouragement and amazement as we regaled them with our life-saving story. After a 10 minute stop we refilled our bottles and walked off to cover the last 30 miles. The pain that I was feeling in my feet was unbearable; it felt like both soles were on fire and every footstep jarred the nerve endings. We began to run and instantly the pain was less. Over the course of the next couple of miles we decided that, as far as was possible, we were going to run to the finish. It was only just over a marathon and we were both runners. So we were going to run. We shook hands on our pact and ran on. It felt good.
The tourist activity increased as we headed through Lechlade and upon reaching St Johns Lock we had a bit of a double celebration. It was the last lock on the Thames and gathered there was a group of Richard’s family and friends complete with a large “Go Richard Go!” sign. We stopped to have a chat and someone informed me that they had been chatting to my wife and son not more than an hour ago. My brain couldn’t quite work out how Richard’s friend had got my wife’s phone number, or vice versa. “How, where?” I asked.
“At the Thames Head pub. And they’ve gone to Westonbirt Arboretum for the afternoon” came the reply.
The lift that this gave me as we started to run again was incredible. My family would be at the finish to see me in. I really wanted to finish now.
Having run this section a few times before Richard had warned me of a truly grim section of road that was 1.2 miles long. When we got there I told him of the team plan: heads down and run. Sure enough the section alongside the A361 had to be seen to believed. One would have thought that, as the Thames Path was one of the most famous and popular walks in the British Isles, it would have been possible to put a path in beside this busy stretch of A road. Clearly not. The unsuspecting walker or, in this case, ultrarunner, has to make do with an overgrown section of verge with a camber that could be used for sledging in the winter. The volume of traffic negated the ability to use the tarmac and I soon realised why Richard had been dreading this bit for the last 160 odd miles.
At last we turned off the road and onto a track. I glanced at my watch and informed Richard that we’d done the horror section in fifteen and a half minutes. High fives all round as we thought we’d be well over 20 minutes and we’d actually survived relatively intact. What is more, we’d managed to turn a real negative into a positive and this lifted both of us for the next few miles. A series of tracks, stubble fields and hedgerows then followed and the early evening sunshine, combined with an abundance of blackberries kept us going. Running was still easier than walking and wherever possible we ran. Somehow we managed to keep going and as we were getting tired just before the village of Castle Eaton, where the final checkpoint was, we were met by a couple of enthusiastic marshals who ran with us through the village all the way to the garden of the Red Lion and checkpoint 7.
The race to beat night 3
A check of our watches confirmed that we had made up considerable time. For the first time in nearly 2 days we were revising our estimated finish time to be earlier than previously expected. It was a nice feeling but we didn’t want to get too carried away. There was still 16 miles left to go and heavy rain forecast for later in the night. We didn’t stop long, although the checkpoint 7 party atmosphere was enticing we were desperate to get finished. For some reason I was driven on by the thought of staying dry and also so that my son didn’t have to have any less sleep than was strictly necessary. Bizarre motives at this stage of the race but motives nonetheless, and I was using anything I could to keep my pace up.
We left the last checkpoint at just before 6.00pm and I was seriously excited at the prospect of the next official stop being the end. We had just under 3 hours of daylight left and an unknown length of time until it chucked it down.
Our high as we left the last checkpoint didn’t last long. Ultramarathons do this to you; play with your emotions. A massive high is often followed by a brutal low and vice versa. The longer you run the more tired and less in control of your emotions you get. And the nearer the finish, the more you lapse into complacency and let your guard down. As the path meandered through a series of lakes we were both hit with the realisation that there was still a few hours left to go and it was going to be a really tough few hours at that. The path went straight for long periods and then, when we finally reached the end of the straight, it turned a corner and then repeated itself. Darkness was falling and the surrounding trees, coupled with the never ending straights, made this section seem very depressing. We couldn’t even see the river at this stage. As tiredness set in I dug deep and kept going.
Finally, as the last of the day was giving way to night, we came out of the lakes section and through the village of Ashton Keynes. I remember running across the outfield of the village cricket club and thinking that it was possibly the most perfect running surface known to man. We left the village with our headtorches back on full beam and set off towards Somerford Keynes.
At times through the awful lakes section we had been reduced to a 2 minutes run, 1 minute walk regime; still better than walking but not exactly Usain Bolt. Now though, as we entered the last 5 miles, I had no intention of walking. My excitement was rising and a last check of the watches, followed by a final recalculation, left us contemplating a sub-59 hour time and finish somewhere near 10.00pm. Because he knew this section of the path well and how much further there was to go, Richard wasn’t excited at the prospect of starting our sprint finish this far out. It was a wise call as one field gave way to another. Then there was a spinney and some more fields. Next a road crossing and another field, followed by a spinney and then half a mile on the road. Surely we must be nearly there now?
All I could think about was seeing my family and looking forward to the feeling of sitting down. I was getting desperate to reach the finish. More fields, more spinneys and more road crossings. Then, as we ran up a track to the side of a field to avoid the long grass across the middle, we saw a light over to the right, in the distance. “That’s it”, said Richard. We arced round and headed towards the flashing lights. There was cow muck all over the field but I didn’t care; it could have been a minefield, it wouldn’t have changed my course or my speed.
Closing in on the gazebo we held hands, raised our arms aloft and charged over the finish line to the cheers of all present. As we hugged, first each other and then the stone, the electrolytes came freely. I had no need to save them any more. Tears of joy and relief, mixed with snot and sweat, dripped onto the stone that marked the source of the mighty River Thames. We’d only gone and done it!
I’ve had some pretty special moments in my 20 year running career and this was right up there with the best of them. Richard and I had covered 184 miles, self-supported, in 58 hours 55 minutes. We had finished joint 4th. An entry list of 108 runners was whittled down to 69 at the start line and that 69 was reduced, by the time the 80 hour cut off came around at 6.30pm on Monday 25th August, to 17 finishers. Our partnership had come together at about mile 4 and stuck together for the next 180 miles. We had taken it in turns to experience highs and lows, to encourage and motivate each other, to advise, help and entertain each other and we had conquered the toughest footrace either of us had ever attempted. It was teamwork of the most successful type and it’s a team that I hope will be reunited for another big challenge in the not too distant future.
As for what happened next? Well, we made last orders at the Thames Head pub and I drank the finest tasting pint of beer I’ve ever had. My amazing wife had managed to get us a room in the pub so there was no overnight drive home, just a hot bath, a good night’s sleep and a special “finishers breakfast” in the morning, which the landlord carefully stacked onto an enormous plate. The finisher’s medal has pride of place at home and Richard and I are contemplating what to do for next year’s big challenge, although this one may never be beaten!
You have to go through this…………………………………………………………..to get one of these!!!