Thames Path 100 – May 2015

Warning – I think this is going to be long. I know it’s going to be boring. Abandon hope all ye who chose to continue reading. The race report you are about to read has been brought to you by the combined power of sarcasm and black coffee.

This was one of those races that kind of crept up on me. I entered it last year, mainly as a training run for the Thames Ring 250 that I’m doing at the end of June, and with the very real expectation that by doing it so close to the TR250 I would remind myself of the pain I had to come, as well as trying out various new nutrition & kit bits.

I had a very specific approach to this 100. Firstly, no aid stations (other than water) or drop bags. When I do the TR250, I will only get support at the 25-mile-checkpoints, so no lovely hot food & coffee every 6 miles or so like I had in GUCR last year. So my nutrition had to cope with being carried for 100 miles, start to finish. Secondly, although I could get water at the frequent aid stations (about every 6-10 miles) I would carry enough to last for 25 miles to see how the weight would affect me. Finally, any kit I’d need, such as night clothing, waterproofs, a change of shoes & socks, would all have to be carried from the start. 

Aha, I hear you thinking, he is some kind of explorer who is going to strip down the weight of everything to its simplest components and hence make the 100 miles easier by only carrying the essentials. No. I carried tonnes and tonnes of stuff, some of it not used but a sensible precaution, such as waterproof trousers, some of it was just silly (such as the two tins of ravioli, all bagged up and ready to eat, just in case – but carried for 100 miles, untouched) and some was just “what was I thinking” like the 8 sachets of pasta meals where I only used two.

In fact, a full display of my kit can be seen here.

The full kit, all laid out, please note, the bed was not included on my run.

The full kit, all laid out, please note, the bed was not included on my run.

I carried (or wore) everything here, with the exception of the second pair of shoes, as I decided that it would be even more fun to destroy my feet over the course of 100 miles and keep the same shoes on throughout. For those wondering, it’s usual to change shoes after about 50 miles as the cushioning has become compressed by that point and is not really helping your feet at all. So, I can confidently declare that the only piece of kit I left out of my pack was the one that would have helped (judging by my feet now, three days later.) 

Right, that’s enough of the self-flagellation about carrying too much kit. Let’s talk about travel arrangements. The TP100 runs from Richmond (London-ish) out to Oxford. Most people sensibly get a lift or train to the start, run to the end, and then get picked up by loving relatives or friends, who carefully look after them and get them home in one piece with a hot meal, pints of Stella and bags of Doritos waiting, and a sofa. Naturally, I planned to drive myself to the finish point the day before, work out where to leave my car as close to the finish as possible (obviously there was going to be loads of free parking in central Oxford, where I could leave my car for 24 hours, on a bank holiday weekend, wasn’t there?), and then get a hotel outside Oxford to stay at Friday night, so I could drive to the parking space on Saturday morning, then walk to the train station, and get the train to the start in London.  Simple!  Then just run back to Oxford, finish, walk to my car, jump in and drive the 3ish hour’s home. Even as I type that, I think I’m insane. However, that was my plan. Driving through Oxford on Friday afternoon of a Bank Holiday weekend was a nightmare, finding a road that I could park in on Saturday morning was rough; driving back out of Oxford to the hotel was still a nightmare.

The condemmed man ate a hearty last meal....with lager on BOGOF!!

The condemmed man ate a hearty last meal….with lager on BOGOF!!

Getting buy-one-get-one-free bottles of beer at the hotel was the best moment of my life, as was the steak I had.

 

 

 

 

 

Saturday morning – 4am. The first flaw in my master-plan had arrived. In order to park & get to the train station & get to the race briefing at 9.30am, I had to get up in the middle of the night. Slightly hung-over too. Ooops. 

Skip forward a few hours, I’m on the train to London, with a growing band of other runners, guzzling coffee, thinking that if it takes a train travelling at 70 mph about 90 minutes to get to London, how long does it take a runner carrying his own body-weight in food to run back. And what does he feel like at the end?

As we neared Richmond on the train, the entire carriage I was in was invaded by French supporters at Twickenham (no idea what they were supporting, but they all got on at Twickenham so it must be rugby related I assume, and the team had yellow & blue in the supporters kit I think, as this was the uniform all the Frenchies were wearing.) All the runners looked at them suspiciously, as we made space for them to sit, and the French looked at us in amazement, clearly thinking that the English dress-sense on a Saturday morning was skin-tight Lycra and rucksacks. I hope that was a good story for our Gallic friends to take home with them. 

Right then, if you’ve made it this far, well done! I will now proceed to talk a little about running.

This event was run by Centurion Running, a super-slick operation (albeit not cheap) that organises 50 & 100 mile ultras throughout the year. Good organisation, great atmosphere, and usually a good mix of quality runners (that disappear into the distance), newbies (that disappear into the distance, behind me) and people like me, just here for the food. 

There was an organised kit check, with a bit of banter, and the customary waiver (“I understand that the damage I do to myself is my own stupid fault”) and before long I was making final adjustments to my kit, and taking photos of toilet queues (doesn’t everyone do this?)

People milling around (& queueing for toilets) at the start

People milling around (& queueing for toilets) at the start

 

A swift race briefing, which included the rather amazing amount of volunteers (I think about 95), and we had a brief wait before the off. I had time to look around and admire people with tiny packs that probably held just a waterproof top and a banana, while mine started to bite into my shoulders like a sack of bricks, held on with barbed wire.

Just about to start!

Just about to start!

 

…And then we were off! I do enjoy those first few hundred yards where everyone is feeling great and happy. The weather (at that point) was good, cool and calm, so was great running weather. It was going to rain about 5pm apparently, and then carry on raining for the next 12 hours, so was going to be a wet night.

 

Within the first mile, the compact bunch of runners came to a style to climb over on the route. Now obviously, waiting for 30-45 seconds in the first 10 minutes of a 100 miles race is not a big deal, but none of us viewed it that way, so when some people found an alternative route snaking round the edge of the trail (which missed out the bottleneck at the style), everyone blasted round it, chuckling excitedly to themselves that the 45 seconds they had just saved was going to make all the difference in the next 95 miles. Happy days. 

This is when I first saw the clown. 

Yes, indeed. Not content with running a long ultra, some sicko had decided to wear a clown costume throughout (complete with wig & red nose) to make the rest of us feel even worse. I got chatting to the guy a few times (more of that later), and I have to say rather liked his style (and the pictures at the finish must have been great). 

However, he was a great runner, so I spent the next 10 miles watching him gradually disappear into the distance. I ran the first 11 miles comfortably, just trying to get used to the swing of the rucksack which tended to overtake me on downhills & want to stop for a rest on uphills. 

I ran straight past the 11m checkpoint, slightly amazed, as always, that everyone else was taking on food & water so early.   At 12 miles I started my first bottle of Coke (yes, always Coke for the first 20ish miles, lots of sugar caffeine & E-numbers…..rocket fuel) and chatted away. I had a particularly surreal conversation with a guy trying to remember the name of the song that Robson & Jerome released when they were in “Soldier Soldier” (back in the last century I think), but all was good and I was feeling fine.

Ignore the railings...it's Hampton Court

Ignore the railings…it’s Hampton Court

We passed Hampton Court, lots of rowers on the river (they have a lovely hobby – clean and speedy, unlike the sweaty plodding I do), and some amazing looking houses (on stilts!). There was a bare-chested guy on an exercise bike at the doorway of one of the rowing clubs looking very athletic (with a HRM chest strap) as we all meandered past. He must have thought we were mad. 

I’d purposely said I would allow myself to run ‘by feel’ for the first marathon distance, as about four weeks previously I’d had to miss the Brighton Marathon due to a little bit of surgery on the sole of my left foot. I’d watched the marathon from the sidelines, which was gutting, so I wanted to run normally for a bit before I started to get sensible. Hence I was quite happy to get to the first marathon out of the way in about 4hr 20, which felt fine. 

About mile 22 or so, I met Rich, one of the more memorable characters I’ve chatted to on a run. In fact, we ran together to the aid station at mile 51, which considering how variable my pace usually is, was really quite unusual. It was Rich’s first 100 miler, but he’d recently done a 50 mile in sub-9 hours, so he had a good set of legs. With his pace keeping us running, and my sorry-excuse-of-a-fitness-level asking to “please please can we walk for a bit” we kept each other going for a long time, both walking and running.

I firmly believe that Rich and I are twins separated at birth, despite him being about 6 years younger than me, and here are just a few reasons why: we both run f or the same reasons, with similar goals, we have similar jobs in management (although I still don’t understand Rich’s job in IT – something about online vs. offline marketing, I don’t know), family stuff and kids, an addiction to Doritos (his is so bad that he gave them up for lent, to see if he could, in the same way I gave them & alcohol up during February), although he tends towards Sweet Chilli flavour, whereas I’m more a Cool Original kind of bloke, both enjoy food too much (he has a great recipe for a Courgette & cheese bake), and I could go on and on. It’s not often I pretty much ‘zone out’ for 25 miles, but I approached 50 miles thinking “Where did the last 4 hours go?”

Lovely open fields and bouncy grass

Lovely open fields and bouncy grass…and no trouble with route markings here!

 

There had a been a few rather frustrating places where I didn’t think the route marking were good enough (probably me just being grumpy) but Rich had this awesome knack of spotting the tiny National Trail Acorn signposts before I could see the house that he was describing it being next to…Him – “The signpost is next to the big white house straight ahead”, Me- “I can’t see any fecking house, for feck’s sake”. Good job he was there really.

 

I’d been eating a bit, mainly my routine rice-crispie bars (tasty and sweet) and some biscuits (bland but healthy) and drinking quite a lot, but I knew I’d have to start eating ‘properly’ soon to keep my energy levels up. However, I felt good, Rich and I planned to run to the finish together to use each others strengths (his excellent pace, my dubious experience), and we made plans to catch up after the 51 mile aid station as I thought I’d be out quickly (as usual) and he planned to change his clothes and eat a bit. 

So we hit the 51 mile aid station in 9 hrs 41, which meant a 4hr20 marathon and then a 5hr 20 one. Quite happy with that. I was in 85th position at that point, and had been in that position quite consistently though the various aid stations so far, which boded well. 

And then I stopped at the aid station. I don’t mean stopped and collapsed or anything. I mean I stopped and looked at my feet. And felt my feet. And realised that they were hurting a lot more than I probably had realised, or had wanted to realise. In fact, both feet were throbbing, specifically on the soles of the feet. A lot of the path had been tarmac or concrete, and I think my trail shoes hadn’t protected them much. The grassy parts were better, but still hard. Added to that, I was wearing my trusty waterproof socks, with a lining sock underneath to wick away the sweat, but didn’t seem to be doing the job very well today. So my feet were poached like when you stay in the bath too long.

Right, change of plan. Socks off (apologising to passers by, who were on a nice Saturday afternoon walk, seeing my gross feet being repaired), draining blisters and cutting plasters to fit. I’ve done this before, when a run has finished, but never halfway through before, and it didn’t bode well for the next 50 miles. For some reason, I was getting big blisters on the flat part of the heel and behind the toes on my right foot, and I couldn’t understand why. My left foot wasn’t quite so bad, but I still taped it up to relieve some of the pressure. I got some clean socks and my shoes back on, tried an extremely careful walk. Shiiiite! That hurt. Paracetamol & ibuprofen. Get on my waterproof jacket as the sky was looking ominous, and pulled out my vacuum flask to get hot water from the aid station for my pasta snack things.

I should pay tribute to the aid stations I’d seen so far, which were cheerful, well-stocked and helpful, but the 51 miles was like a military kitchen, with massive bubbling pans of pasta and lots of helpers (dressed as super-heroes I think, but I may have dreamt that part). With my flask full of hot water, I screwed the lid back on to give it time to cook the pasta and set off after Rich. He’d left after about 10 mins and I was amazing to realise I had been there for almost 30m minutes repairing myself. However, I told myself, if my feet stay in one piece it will be the best 30 mins of the day.

I plodded off, feeling a bit gutted to have lost Rich to chat to, but I suspect I’d not have kept up anyway. My feet calmed down after a mile or so, so I walked and ate pasta. Yum. It was about 8pm, just starting to get dark. I felt ok, apart from my feet hurting, and wasn’t particularly worried about going through the night as usually this is where I can keep quite a constant pace while people around me slow down. 

Now, I suspect you’re pretty bored with my talking about all this kit I’ve been carrying. But I have to say that one of the things I most impressed myself with on the run, was that about mile 53 or so, I recharged my Garmin watch ( with a lead and power pack thingy) while on the go, so that it lasted for the full 100 miles. Not many people can say that! Nor do they want to actually, but it made me smile. 

The next few hours passed in a bit of a blur. I’d purposely not got a mileage counter going on my Garmin, so I had no idea how far I had gone. I didn’t know the time, or where the aid stations were. In fact, I was probably the only person going into the aid station asking what time it was and what mileage we were at. I’d consciously not looked at the locations of the aid stations, so I wouldn’t rely on them. My watch simply showed how fast I was moving at that time (i.e. what my ‘minutes per mile’ was) and as long as it was better than 15 m/m I was doing fine. I found this quite liberating – there was no countdown to the next time I could stop – so I just kept going.

Big old river isn't it!  Just as it was getting dark.

Big old river isn’t it! Just as it was getting dark.

Through the night it started to drizzle, but it was actually quite cooling and not really a problem. At some point we joined the route of the Winter 100 I’d done the previous October, which was nice to see some familiar paths. I started to see quite a bit of wildlife in the night, cows and sheep staring back at me (they weren’t sleeping, strangely) and there seemed to be lots of frogs around (or maybe that was just me).

I was conscious I wasn’t eating as much as I usually do, and contemplated having more pasta snack, cold ravioli, biscuits or whatever that I had with me, but simply didn’t want it and more importantly didn’t feel bad enough that I needed it. If I’d had a large pepperoni pizza with me that might have been different! I was taking on coffee at each of the aid stations to keep my head clear, but it wasn’t going down well. 

I passed the aid station at mile 71 at about 1am, just under 15 hours after starting. The worst time for me is usually around 1-3am, simply because that is when I start to go to sleep, so rather than enjoying a sit down in the light, warm, surroundings, I just gave my number and carried on. I even forgot to have a coffee which made the next hours tough. However, I saw a lot of people sitting at the aid-station looking rough, and it’s hard to get back up off a chair once you’ve relaxed.

Awesome spread at the food stations

Awesome spread at the food stations

 

Back into the night! I still don’t really remember much about the next few hours. I must have been awake, as normally overnight I have a iPod to keep me company but I remember thinking I didn’t need it at the time. I also wasn’t feeling too rough as my stash of sherbet lemons was pretty much untouched (if you don’t know what that means, try having a sherbet lemon during a particularly rough patch – it’s very difficult to feel awful with a sherbet lemon in your mouth!) 

I’d been seeing quite a lot of the clown costume guy at this point. Despite him zooming ahead early on, somehow I’d caught him up, and we’d chatted for a bit (about how every time he overtook me I’d been ‘clowned’, and then when I overtook him back I was ‘de-clowned’). He was threatening to get a whole team of clowns doing the race next year, which would be hilarious, but I don’t think I’d be one of them. 

We met again at the checkpoint at mile 85, where I’d decided it was time to have another look at my feet, the right one in particular, as I was resorting to walking on the side of my foot rather than the flat as it was hurting so much. I won’t go into the details, but it wasn’t pretty. I finally realised what some of the problem was – my shoes had both shredded in the same spot, and the right in particular was letting in all the grit and stones that the gaiters were supposed to keep out. This meant that I had a shoe full of ‘bits’ that were just destroying the underneath of my foot. Having tipped out the rubbish, taped up my foot again, and tried to tape up the hole, I chose to swap my sock for the one I’d taken off at mile 51 as it was in slightly better state (less blood etc) but it wasn’t pleasant pulling it on. That was probably the worst point of the whole night, knowing I still had 15 miles to go on a foot that was in poor shape, in a ripped shoe, on a rough trail. So I had a sherbet lemon and felt better.

Never had a shoe shred like this before, no wonder they were full of gravel

Never had a shoe shred like this before, no wonder they were full of gravel

 

The clown was at the aid station at the same time, looking rougher than I’d expected, considering every time I’d seen him he’d been running… He explained that he’d been hoping for a sub-20 hour time, but now was going to be happy with sub-24. I left shortly before him, and I think I finished about 30 minutes ahead. 

There had been a few tired people at that aid station (including one guy asleep, that I reckoned was going to feel awful when he awoke) but I headed back into the night (sucking a sherbet lemon) knowing that dawn would be there soon and that would be great. In fact, almost straight way I was able to switch off my head-torch and could feel it getting lighter all the time. It was just as well, as the trail became very rutted for the next few hours, and the rain had turned from drizzle to proper rain that just kept coming. I suspect the people that still had a few hours to go must have been getting very wet and cold.

I have no recollection of the aid station at mile 91, but apparently I passed it after 20hrs30mins, about 6.30am. I do remember getting to the aid station at mile 95, as it was a sort-of open sided farming shelter (think of a barn without sides) and the rain was cascading off the roof like a waterfall that you had to go through to get to the food. It was like going under one of those hidden waterfalls in The Hobbit. Sort of.   A cheerful guy there said I was going to be well-within 24 hours, which was lovely, except (I said) that I’d decided I was going to make it in under 23 hours. “Right then, you’d best get going then”, he said, showing me the way out – fantastic! I have to confess, I did have a couple of bits of pork-pie at the food table here, it was just too good to resist. I still don’t know why I wasn’t eating much; I much make more effort to have more variety with me another time, as normally I eat like a pig.

Last 5 miles.   The trail was the worst yet, earth, packed with roots, stones, broken twigs. Not difficult, but very uneven and required concentration to prevent injury…..just what I wanted. A guy ran past me wearing some Vibram 5-fingers, I hate to imagine what his feet must have felt like.

The last 3 miles went back to path alongside the river though, so it was nice to limp along, smelly and dirty, while Sunday morning joggers (joggers, not runners, see what I did there?) bounced past me all nice and clean. I was overtaken with about 2 miles to go by a couple that eventually finished just ahead of me; he was talking constantly to her about just keeping going. To be fair, they were both running though, so better than I could have done. I let them go, thinking that I couldn’t possibly keep up with them, until I looked behind me about 5 minutes later and saw another three runners catching me up. Somehow I broke into a rather shambolic run, and actually did the last 0.7 miles in an impressive 11.5 mins. Eat your heart out Mo Farah.  The finish was nice and open, on a playing field, with a few people around clapping, which was great.

Total time 22 hours, 34 mins, about 8.35am. Couple of pictures at the finish line, I’ll not produce them here as I take an awful picture on a good day…and this wasn’t even a good day. I got my “100 miles 1 day” buckle from Nikki which was great, and then what seemed like a lot of people came to offer me a drink, food, anything else I wanted. I saw Rich, and was chuffed to hear he finished in 22 hours 11, which is a brilliant time for a first 100 miles. I said well done, shook his hand, and then set off to the car to get moving before I stiffened up. It was great to get my shoes off at the car, put on some warm clothing, and I was driving out of Oxford by 9am. I spent most of the car journey eating Cornish pasties and Doritos, and pulled over for 30 mins sleep at a service station. Home to a hero’s welcome (well, sort of “Don’t you bring all that mud indoors!!”)

Phew! What a weekend!

So, my thoughts overall:  I’m happy with the time, so not sure I’m going to be too fussed about doing another 100 miler unless there’s a good reason. I did the first 100 mile of GUCR in about 22 hours, but that was without a heavy rucksack and with a buddy runner from 70 miles, so it probably works out the same.  I’m not too bothered to see if I can go faster.

My position in the field stayed surprisingly static for the first 58 miles, about 80-85th throughout. Then I went from 84th at mile 58 to 75th at mile 71 to 56th at mile 91. My slow-but-steady approach making up for a lack of pace. I finished 54th overall, out of 180ish finishers and 260 starters. The winner finished in 16 hours 35mins, so I’ve got a little way to go before I start contending the front spot. That is some amazing running.

Nutrition worked OK, but I must remember more variety and not take so much (for god’s sake). Carrying two tins of ravioli around 100 miles is not funny. My kit worked really well, apart from the shambles that my feet become. I still don’t know if a second pair of shoes would have made the difference, or it was just a rough trail. I know there were lots of people on twitter complaining of bruising on the soles of their feet afterwards. My legs are fine, my back is bruised because of the rucksack, but that’s probably the worst of it.

And my feet? Specifically, my right foot. It hurts, a lot. I don’t think I knew how much I pushed until the following day when I pretty much couldn’t walk on it. Even now, three days later I still can’t really put it flat on the ground. All hail the great gods paracetamol and ibuprofen.

I got a few good learning’s for the Thames Ring 250. Mainly, that if I feel like that after 100 miles, I need to slow down if I want to keep going for another 150 miles. And look after my feet!

Thanks, as always, to Centurion Running for their brilliant event, and the superb volunteers at the aid stations. I’m sorry if I didn’t appreciate you at the time, but I think you were all great.

And thanks to you if you made it this far on this, possibly the ultra-equivalent of race reports. If you send me your name and address I will post you a belt buckle (or something) proclaiming you as a finisher…. “I survived an Ultra-Average race report”

 

Chunky buckle......

Chunky buckle……

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2 comments

  1. Congratulations Bob, truly awe inspiring. I must be made for ultras as sherbet lemons along with toffee bob- bons are my favourites. Good luck for your 250 miles

    Like

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