Long Run for a Pint
A tale of tackling the
T184 (184 mile Thames Path) Ultramarathon
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.
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).
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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. I had moved on from the “running without
growing weary” part of my motivational passage and was firmly concentrating on
the “walk without growing faint” bit instead.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
He was fine but it was race over for him.
through to Strealey 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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
how can I help?”
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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!
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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!