Thames Ring 250 – June 2015

 

Before you start – a warning: this isn’t the story of a muscled athlete smashing out the miles before finishing in glory. It isn’t even the story of a good day (or three) out. But it does have a ring of truth about it, and (for me) some great moments. It is long, and boring. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.

And something else too. Very often, it is easy in race reports to make yourself sound like a bit of a hero. I have tried my best not to do this, with the aid of late nights, red wine and a sarcastic sense of humour. The last thing we need is another bloody hero…

 

Excerpt from “Bob Wild – Adventurer, Spy, Lover” Series – ‘Book 3 – Thames Ring 250 ‘

I smiled to myself as a considered the colour of my wee. It had gone from the dark brown marmite-colour of a severely dehydrated runner, during the evening before and overnight, to the beautiful golden stream of a hydrated person. Happy days.

I rubbed a hand over my raspy chin, knowing that soon it would be the knee-length growth of a proper ‘ultra-beard’. Again, I smiled to myself, knowingly.  I was, clearly, a bloody hero.

It was about 10am, I’d just woken up from a 90 minute sleep (my first in 28 hours), and I’d gone to sleep knowing that I had at least a litre of water inside my stomach (or somewhere inside me), but it wasn’t getting absorbed because despite drinking a lot, I was sweating it out even faster.

However, with a much healthier colour to my wee, and a sleep inside me, I could sort myself out for the rest of this 250 mile race, and get moving. I’d come 82 miles in about 24 hours, had a sleep, and would now push on until mile 156, where the next sleep would be, in another 24 hours or so.

All I had to do to complete my good mood was eat something. My stomach had, understandably, not been my friend for the last day as it was heavily occupied with absorbing litres of water, but I knew that if I couldn’t get some food inside me I would get progressively more wretched until it was game over.

So I prepared a smorgasbord of lovely food. I prepared a bag of rehydrated food (600 calories, bland but good texture), couple of sausage rolls (100 calories each, tasty but junk), 2 paracetamol (OK, no calories, but necessary), a handful of TUC biscuits (no idea how many calories, but crunchy, tasty, salty, and lovely). And I put about three grains of rice from the rehydrated food in my mouth, chewed, swilled, swashed, moved it around with my tongue, did anything I could with it, but it wasn’t going to go down my throat. Every time I moved it to the rear of my tongue for swallowing, my throat closed and an ominous rumbling started that would inevitably lead to the retching I’d had for the last 24 hours.

“That’s OK, don’t panic” I told myself. “Biscuits, with their lovely texture and salty exterior will slip down easily”. I nibbled off about 2 millimetres off the corner. Chewed. It became a paste in my mouth. Nasty, slimy buttery yellowy paste. It wasn’t going anywhere.

I looked fondly at my paracetamol, as they lay and smiled up at me, promising some relief. They would take the edge off my stiff and sore muscles and allow me to keep positive for the future miles, rather than wallow in the pain and misery of muscles protesting at overuse. I didn’t think I’d be able to get them inside me either, and with no food to digest they probably wouldn’t work particularly well.

At this point the story goes one of two possible ways:

Either I would shrug on my man-suit, toughen up, and carry on running on an empty stomach, confident that my trusty dependable body would sort itself out in time. Or I would stay where I was and keep trying to eat, forcing down calories as if eating witchety grubs on a celebrity- jungle eating challenge.

To be continued…… 


 The Thames Ring 250 is a tough run.

Billed on the Trail Running Association website as “England’s Longest non-stop trail race,” it follows various canals on a circular 250 mile route that initially goes into London and then out and up to Milton Keynes and even more upwards to Northampton, before turning the top of the circle and coming down through Oxford and Abingdon to finish very near the start. Probably easier just to give you a map:

THe route.  We started in the 7 o'clock position (near Wallingford) and went anti-clockwise.

The route. We started in the 7 o’clock position (near Wallingford) and went anti-clockwise.

The race runs every 2 years: because of its extreme nature there are not enough people to fill the capacity (of 50) even every 2 years. I have a suspicion this may change in the future. There are cut-offs for every checkpoint (about every 25 miles) and in total you are allowed 100 hours, exactly 4 days and 4 hours. A good bench-mark is to complete a 100 mile race in 24 hours, so having an extra 3 days to do the next 150 miles is not totally impossible but tough.

What sort of people want to do this sort of thing? Normally I’d would suggest ex-army (probably SAS), in top physical condition, recently arrived back from Afghanistan with a severe case of PTSD, too much energy and a garage full of survival kit. But in fact, everyone doing it was just like me….normal bloke with a normal job, bit of a runner (no speed left, but can keep running for a while), looking for a challenge, used to putting their body under a bit of stress, and looking for something to push beyond the normal limits.

And what made me think I could do this? Well, nothing really. In fact, when I entered I was fairly certain that the distance was beyond me.   I had done a 145 mile race (the Grand Union Canal Race) in May 2014, and that went well, so it seemed a logical progression to aim for a 250 mile race and see how I coped. However, when I did the GUCR, I finished in a smashed-up heap, unable to go any further than the nearby car. The thought of doing that to myself and then carrying on for another 100 miles was ludicrous. Simply was not going to happen.

So I entered. And I planned.

In the race you are not allowed support, except at the checkpoints every 25 miles. You can buy whatever you need from shops, but they are few and far between. This means that the lovely idea of having a crew to meet you every few hours to spoon feed you hot food and coffee is not going to happen. The checkpoints would have provisions, of course, and shelter in case the weather was poor, but between them you would be self-sufficient. Not a problem for a single 25 mile section, but after three or four checkpoints and especially overnight, I was expecting to need a food system that would deliver me quick and easy hot food at the roadside without needing to stop for ages.   It needed to be accessible without taking my rucksack off, and obviously quite light. I settled on 2 vacuum flasks, each holding about 2 mugfulls of liquid. I could put two cup-a-soup type pasta meals into one, fill it with hot water, and then screw the lid on for an hour to eat later. The other would be coffee or something which would keep me awake. Both of these would sit above my hips in the netting of a Raidlight rucksack, and did not get in the way of too much running. Perfect.

I played with many different varieties of shoes in the 6 months before the race. Partially because I wanted to move to a more cushioned shoe that would protect my knees, which took a massive battering during GUCR, and also because my usual type of shoe (Mizunno Wave Inspire 7, if you desperately want to know) went out of production years ago (they are now up to Wave Inspire 11’s), so I couldn’t get them. So I spent a couple of happy afternoons at my local running shop as they patiently brought me pretty much every shoe they had, and settling on a couple of good bets. Then turning to eBay, where I stalked a few other brands that liked the look of, with the aim of getting a few second hand pairs that wouldn’t break the bank while giving me a few different choices.

At the same time I was playing with choices of shoe, I was suffering with two ongoing injuries that were getting in the way of ‘normal’ running. A verruca on the sole of my foot was simply like walking (or running) with a stone in my shoe. This meant I started to bend my left foot inwards (to avoid stepping on the stone) and hence my left thigh muscle was being bent and stretched out of shape and generally being very tight to run with.

The all important blister kit!

The all important blister kit!

Yes, yes, I know. Trying different styles of shoe, while completely distorting my running style was a recipe for disaster, and I had blisters galore. My expertise grew every week as I practised taping my feet, reading books like ‘Fixing your Feet’ and discovering the glories of putting duct tape over problem areas. In the end I had a small operation to remove the verruca and this made me realise how much my running gait had been buggered.   It took about 3 weeks for the hole in my foot to close up, but in those three weeks I learnt how to walk with poles (as it hurt too much to run) and I suspect I was the only person walking most of the Brighton Marathon course at 4am on the morning of the marathon as I couldn’t run it later that day. (I didn’t expect it to be quite so busy with drunks along the seafront at that time, and got quite a lot of healthy abuse/banter, but I like to think I gave them something to remember later and wonder if they dreamt it!)

So, I’d finally sorted my feet out, chosen a variety of shoes (some soft road shoes, some tougher trail shoes for when the terrain got rough), and worked out how I would feed myself over the length of 250 miles. I had done a recce of about 80 miles of the route, from Bletchley to Kings Sutton in March, so I was happy with the navigation and terrain.

I did a trial run with all my kit, in the Thames Path 100 race in early May. I did this 100 miler fully-loaded, carrying all my food and kit, just using the aid-stations for water. It worked well, and I finished in about 22.5 hours, still able to drive home after. The only serious problem was blisters again, but this was due to my shoes actually shredding on the course, allowing loads of stones and twigs in, which I did not realise until later. New shoes please!

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

I had also done a couple of nights of minimal sleep, to understand the effect it would have on me. Although thoroughly unpleasant, it was a good learning experience. I ran through though Friday night, getting to bed at about 4am for a 5.30am start on Saturday morning. I worked through Saturday, and then went to a local 24-hour running event being held from lunchtime Saturday to lunchtime Sunday (the 24 hour Marshside Challenge, run by Challenge Hub – they’re very good!). By midnight Saturday I was thoroughly pissed off though, tired and unhappy, and made the mistake of calling my wife who said the fateful line “Well, you could just come home to bed”, so I did. The evening served the purpose of teaching me just how pissed off I get with lack of sleep, though, so not a complete waste!


 

So we are about a week before the race. I was well prepared with kit, I had food for each of the checkpoints organised, and little snack bags for between each of the checkpoints organised.

This was about halfway through the packing extravaganza....

This was about halfway through the packing extravaganza….

A small selection of tasty morsels...one for every checkpoint

A small selection of tasty morsels…one for every checkpoint

Everything was labelled and named. All I have left to do was pack it into two drop bags that would be transported ahead of me throughout the race (nope, I don’t understand how they kept the bags of 40 competitors spread out over 60 or 70 miles all ahead of the correct people either, but they did).

I had a couple of drinks with some running mates to run through my plans in a bit of detail with them, while they suggested improvements or things that could go wrong. One critical change was to sleep earlier, at checkpoint 3 (about mile 82) rather than waiting until later, and this worked well. But the rest of the plan felt robust and like it would work…if I could just hold everything together and keep moving forward.

I’d read pretty much all the previous race reports I could get my hands on, simply to know what to expect. There were some really good details in most of them, from particular sleep strategies, to the mind-set towards the end. They all made it sound very tough, if only from a point where fitness stops helping and it’s a battle against the head. Interestingly, few people seemed to drop out due to actual injury, probably because of the relative slowness of movement towards the end, but a general fatigue (as you would expect!) is the killer. The time allowed for the final stage of 18 miles is 9 hours, which on any given day should be do-able! If only I knew then what I know now!

With a fortnight to go, 3 crazy fools decided to do ‘the double’…which meant doing the 250 mile loop once, within the same cut-offs, before finishing and joining the start line for a second loop. The start time of the main race was 100 hours after they started the first loop, so they had to finish in a decent time if they were to have any recovery time before setting off again.   This goes way beyond tough, and enters the realms of, ohhhhhhh very hard indeed. All were experienced guys and knew the size of the challenge they were taking on. I’d briefly got to know one, Rich Cranswick, as he ran the Thames Path 100 in a clown costume alongside me, and hence I watched their progress carefully.

Ernie, Rich and Javed, setting off to attempt the 'double'.  500 miles in 200 hours....

Ernie, Rich and Javed, setting off to attempt the ‘double’. 500 miles in 200 hours….

Rich, Javed and Ernie made good progress as they started, and regular Facebook updates and a brilliant satellite tracker meant you could see where they all were on the route at any time. They didn’t stay together, which initially I found strange, but as they told me later, it would be just too difficult to sync up their run & sleep patterns. So they are all out there, separated by a few miles, with a few people meeting them at checkpoints to feed & water them. Other than watching their progress, I didn’t worry too much about them, simply assuming they would all get to the end of the first lap as with their experience they would not have volunteered for something that wasn’t achievable, would they?

So when Rich pulled out at about 170 miles, I’m standing in my kitchen thinking “Hang on, this guy was aiming for twice as long, is massively experienced, had good support, and didn’t get to the end of the first loop.” Facebook didn’t tell me whether he had been injured, suggesting that he had dropped out due to fatigue. Shit. If superman can’t complete a lap, what hope have I got? This really got to me, and I had a couple of days of having to give myself a bloody good talking to, in order to quieten my mind.

In the end, Javed and Ernie finished the first loop, but Ernie didn’t start the second due to some problems with his Achilles, and Javed…well, I’ll tell you more about Javed later.    

So it is Tuesday morning, before the race starts on Wednesday at 10am. I am all packed up, and sent the kids to school & the wife to work. I’ve got about 4 hours until my train to take me up to the start, and my mind is exploding with thoughts, not all bad, but exploding nevertheless. There is another blog, below this one, containing some of my pre-race thoughts. Not very interesting, though.

I won’t tell you about the train journey across London. It’s enough to say that the drop bags weighed a ton, and every station & tube was specifically designed to have maximum stairs. Bollocks.

Doesn't look like much, but it weighed a ton!

Doesn’t look like much, but it weighed a ton!

The pub I was staying at was very central and just what a pub/restaurant should look like, all oak beams and stairs. I took great pleasure in asking for some poor lad from the bar to carry my heaviest bag up the two flights of stairs to the bedroom, and even more pleasure in seeing him struggle. It’s not that I’m mean, but these youngsters don’t know they’re born etc when I was young I lived in a cardboard box on the central reservation of the M25 and ate gravel (if you get the reference, you are probably as old as me).

There was a small group of what I took to be runners in the beer garden (where else?) so after I double checked my kit, I ordered a beer and went to introduce myself. I found myself chatting away to two Swedish guys, Debbie (Ernies partner, who was currently doing the double) and Rich Cranswick (who had decided to have another stab at the main race, having dropped out of the first loop of the double). To his credit, Rich was still a little spaced out and every so often would lose flow of his conversation, but he was in great spirits. Debbie was glued to her laptop, showing how Ernie was getting on. He was about 5 miles from the finish, but struggling with an injury and was going very slowly. He would definitely finish, but was in some pain. It was quite an eye opener to see Debbie’s level of (understandable) concern, and I suppose I saw a bit of my wife in her as she didn’t take her eyes from the little blue dot on the screen as it updated every minute or so.

I was lucky enough to have dinner with Debbie (and the laptop) and chatted about the various races we’d done (GUCR), which we ones were too hard (The Spine, don’t even start me off about the Spine) and which were just too expensive (MdS). Interestingly, we never really talked about the Thames Ring, which Ernie has completed before, but that was probably for the best.

Selfie the night before....looking healthy -ish

Selfie the night before….looking healthy -ish

As Debbie thought Ernie was almost at the finish, she rushed off to make sure she was there for him, and I sat for a few minutes to finish my meal (very nice steak & chips if you want to know) before heading up to bed. I won’t say the bed was rather large, comfy and ornate…but 8.5 hours later I woke up thinking “What happened?” Great preparation for being awake for the next few days!!

 

Rather a posh bed for me, but I did sleep well!

Rather a posh bed for me, but I did sleep well!

Breakfast the next morning was supposed to be a ‘full English’ but actually was a sausage, two bits of bacon and some mushrooms. All superb quality, but it was one of those times when I wished for quantity rather than quality. I chatted to another competitor called Dave at breakfast, who’d been up in the night being sick, and didn’t feel like eating breakfast at all. Oh dear, not a great start. We arranged to get a taxi together to the start…it was only 0.9 miles, but carrying my bloody heavy drop bags that far was just not an option. In fact, as we were sitting outside the pub waiting for the taxi, a chef came out saying the taxi had a flat tyre and that he’d take us to the start instead! That’s service for you!

The start was a scout hut somewhere, with a decent number of very strong looking runners there in various states of preparation. I checked in, had my mandatory kit checked and found myself a corner to sort myself out. I followed the lead of most others by putting on suntan lotion, but I hadn’t really recognised the fact that it was going to be hot. At least not as hot as it was. I prepared my 2 water bottles with fresh water and electrolyte tablets. I had a couple of electrolyte tablets ready in each of my checkpoints bags, which would cover the 1.5 litres of fresh water I would fill up with at each checkpoint. I didn’t like the taste of the electrolyte, but I tend to sweat profusely in hot weather, and have suffered in the past by not replacing the chemicals in the sweat I lose when I take only plain water on.

I was a little worried that I had, without a doubt, the biggest heaviest rucksack of anyone. Most people had tiny snug packs that probably held a waterproof and some water. I could carry enough for a week, and still have space left for bear-repellent-spray (just in case) and a bag of Doritos. Ah well, I consoled myself, in a couple of days, when I’m having a nice picnic down by the canal I will thank myself for having room for a few nibbles.

Lindley Chambers presented finishers medals for the guys that completed the first loop of the douple, Javed and Ernie, and gave a few starting instructions, before getting us to walk about a mile to the actual starting point (back to my pub!). That walk was lovely, a band of brothers going to war…some wouldn’t finish, some would, but at that point we’d all worked hard for months to get to the start line together. A real feeling of camaraderie. Apart from the bastards that got driven to the start to save their legs……f*ck them.

So there we are, waiting to start. There were a few instructions from Lindley. Absolutely can’t remember what he said. I was in my customary position right at the back. Everyone wishing everyone else good luck. And we were off.

Intermission:

Well, you’ve made it this far, committed reader. We are 8 or so pages in, and just about to start running 250 miles. It’s only going to get harder. Do you really want to start? There is no dishonour in quitting now; you’ve given it a fair attempt.

don't quit

 

Back to the running then…

Miles 0-27.

Average pace approx 12m/m (a bit slow, but it was very hot)

Time taken 5 hrs 21 (from tracker)

There is one massive benefit to starting at the back. You get to look around, go slow, chat away with other like-minded slow-coaches, and know that you’re not getting off too fast. I wanted the first 27 miles to be almost a meditation to the distance, as this was where I would feel the best, and where I would be able to reflect on what had got me here. I was chatting to loads of different people around me, including Glyn Raymen, who I met last year on Winter 100, where we discovered that within the small group we were running in there were three of us (Marcus Shepherd was the other) going to be attempting the TR250 in 8 months time.   How time flies!

At about 10 miles or so, I was running alongside Javed, one of the finishers of the first loop of the double. He was running as smoothly as a shaved fox, despite the fact that he had completed the previous 250 miles in about 81 hours. We joked that he must have had some serious work done to his legs in the intervening 20 hours to aid his recovery. I still (even now) wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it as he comfortably covered the same distance at the same pace that I was running.   He had some intriguing ‘theories’ and ideas of different ‘operating systems’ of the various mindsets that he thought would help him through the next four days, and I have to say that I’m not sure I’ve ever run and chatted with someone that challenged my preconceptions so much. For example, I would assume that when attempting to run 500 miles (or even 250) the mind should break it down into manageable chunks (of, perhaps, 25miles) and not think about the ‘whole’ but just the next 25 miles, and maybe each of those 25 mile legs into 5 or 8 mile sections. On the contrary, Javed tells me, during the first loop he worked to the whole distance in his head, approaching the massive mileage as ‘one’. I’m not explaining it very well, but wait for his book, it’ll be interesting!

I became conscious I was slowing a little in the heat. My water wasn’t going down as well as I wanted, I could feel it starting to accumulate in my stomach a bit, which never makes for pleasant running, and I remember thinking (at midday) that I may find this heat a bit of a challenge.   The route was picturesque though, the sun was shining, and all seemed well with the world. I had a rice-crispy bar and felt fine.

At about mile 13 Paul Ali popped up taking pictures along the Thames, and took this rather splendid shot of a few of us looking like were actually enjoying ourselves. I think the guy in orange is Darren, who was still in my vicinity at mile 156, looking a bit rougher there though. The guy in blue is Marcus Shepherd, who looked very strong and naturally broke into a proper run when he saw the camera.

Someone taking a picture!  We'd better run then!!!  Marcus in blue, Darren in orange, and Mark (with Sleepy on the far left).  I'm the good-looknig one on the right.

Someone taking a picture! We’d better run then!!! Marcus in blue, Darren in orange, and Mark (with Sleepy on the far left). I’m the good-looking one on the right.

Quite a few people popped into a shop at mile 19, and from there it didn’t take long to get to the first checkpoint at mile 27. I think I hardly stopped here, just fresh water and a snack-bag of a few goodies.   The checkpoint was well organised, with my drop-bag waiting for me by a chair, requiring the minimum of effort from me (which is just what the doctor ordered).

Checkpoint 1, with chairs and drop bags laid out. I’m kneeling in the middle.

Mile 27-55

Average pace 13.30 m/m

Total time 12 hr 20 (from tracker)

Yup, it was definitely getting hotter and sweatier. The arms of my T-shirt had sweat stripes on them, and I knew I was starting to get dehydrated. Not a major problem, but it would be if I couldn’t start to get some water into my system (I was drinking enough, it was just sitting in my stomach). I hadn’t had a wee since I started 6 hours ago, and since I have a fabulously weak bladder (I normally can’t hold a cup of coffee for 30 minutes) I knew I needed to do something different to get the water into my system. So I slowed a lot, took a lot more walking breaks to allow my body a bit of rest and my stomach to do what it could. This helped a lot, and I started wee-ing, but only very small amounts of a dark yellow colour (too much information?) – good news is that kidneys still work, bad news is that they’ve got a lot of work to do!

The other good news was my feet. Having spent the run so far just waiting for the first blister to start, I was beginning to get a bit of confidence my shoes (a fairly bog-standard pair of road-shoes) were doing the business, plus two pairs of socks (Injinji toe socks & a lightweight pair over the top of them) that allows lots of movement without any actual friction on my skin. To have made it this far with no troubles was good news, considering I’d had 15 mile runs over the last few months that had given me major problems. I planned to change my shoes at the next checkpoint, to another pair of road shoes and allowed myself to think that my feet might hold together for the first hundred miles, a milestone I’d only dreamt of a month ago.

The heat was still very rough, and I ended up going into a Harvester along the river to change my bottles for ice and water. I imagine I wasn’t the only sweaty smelly runner visiting them this evening, as they didn’t question what I’d asked for (“Lots of ice and tap water please”) or even asked what on earth I was doing. I’m still sure that iced water kept my core temperature down as the evening started to cool around me. I remember thinking that it saved my life.

At about 9pm I spoke to my wife, just to let her know I was still alive. I’d purposely kept my phone switched off until then, in order to conserve the battery but also to keep my head focussed on the task in hand. However, it felt good to speak to home, take stock of where I was and start to think about the next checkpoint. The 55 mile checkpoint at Chertsey would be at the start of the first night, and I would need to take a little time to make sure that I had got my night gear sorteed and eaten properly before heading out into the night.

A guy called Spenser overtook me at about mile 45. He looked really strong, and was very distinctive due to his star-trek-high-tech-navigator-thingy attached to his wrist. I’m still not sure what it was but it looked about the size of a smart phone and basically was pointing him, turn-by-turn, through the route. The rest of us had maps with directions (which were pretty simple) and this was enough. I talked to Spenser a few times over the next few days, and he had finished some tough races (notably the Spine, the bloody Spine again) in the past. He went past me like a rocket, and was in good shape.

Then I was chatting to Dave, the guy I’d spoken to at breakfast, who was feeling the effects of his being sick overnight at the pub, and needed to get some food inside him. He was searching on his phone for the closest place he could get some hot food before night fell. I offered pizza.

Shall I tell you about pizza? About magic pepperoni pizza, that is possibly the most calorific hot cheesy tasty greasy food you can eat, and if your body is crying out for calories you can just inhale it and it will hit your muscles like spinach does for Popeye. I’d had my first experience of magic pizza recovery while on a 24 hour run in 2011, when my wife presented it to me at about 8pm and it was gone 15 minutes later. Last year, in GUCR, my support crew somehow got me a large pepperoni pizza at mile 65, and I wolfed it down while still moving – it was very memorable and was 2000 much-needed calories.

I’d already spoken to the local Domino Pizza about three weeks earlier with a very strange conversation…

Me – “Hello, I like you to deliver a pizza to a specific patch of grass opposite this particular postcode in about three weeks at 10 o’clock at night, will you be able to do this?”

Domino pizza – “WTF? Ummmm, yes”

Me – “Cool. I call you back in three weeks then. Thanks, bye”

I’m sure I’m not the only person to arrange a pizza three weeks in advance, but I’m certainly the only one writing here about it.

Soooo, I phoned up for my pizza, to an understanding Dominos outlet (well done Dominos Addlestone!), and ordered two pizzas to be delivered to checkpoint 2 in about an hour. They were very helpful, and agreed to write my name and runners number on the box, as well as giving rather explicit instructions to the driver about where to deliver. I also phoned Rachel, one of the organisers of checkpoint 2 to warn her that a bloke might be delivering a pizza to her before I got there, if I’d mucked up my timings.

Night was falling and my head torch was making the shadows jump around me as I marched the last few miles to the checkpoint where my pizza would be waiting. And I felt OK as I got my head together with what I needed to get done at the checkpoint before leaving it. I would change my shoes and socks, and most important check my feet for any hotspots. I would re-apply some sudo-cream to my nether regions as I was getting a little chafing. I would swap my Garmin to recharge one in my drop-bag, while using my wife’s for the next 50 miles (cracking idea that – getting her the exact same Garmin I use for her birthday, well done Bob). I would swap my sweaty top for two layers that would keep me warm overnight. I would have a small coffee to give me a little caffeine, but not loads otherwise I wouldn’t sleep at the next checkpoint. I would make sure I have a warm top in my rucksack, and get another snack-bag for the next leg (although I’d hardly touched the last one). And I would eat pizza.   All good. I wasn’t hungry, and I was dehydrated, but I thought I could get both fixed with a dose of pizza.

I got to the checkpoint at Chertsey about 10.30 pm, and set about sorting my kit out as described above. Everyone there was in good spirits with lots of banter, especially when Rachel recognised my number as the guy who’d phoned her about the pizza. Spenser headed out shortly after I arrived, but there must have been 5 or 6 of us there, with the same number of volunteers. All were really helpful and jumped to fetch anything asked for. I had a largish coffee while I changed my shoes, and was really chuffed to see my feet looked absolutely fine – I’ve seen them look worse after a Sunday morning long run. A quick once-over with a wet wipe & it was on with new crispy socks – lovely.

Quite a few others were arriving, including Javed who set about himself with a foam roller on a mat on the floor, and I was just beginning to wonder whether I’d have to wait too much longer for my pizza when the unthinkable happened.

I felt a rather unusual ‘bubbling’ from my stomach, and just had time to get to the far side of the checkpoint, in the relative gloom, before emptying my stomach into the bushes. Multiple times. This wasn’t just being sick. This was complete voiding of everything I’d been carrying in my stomach, and carried on until my body was absolutely sure there was no remnant of anything solid or liquid hidden away in any nook or cranny inside me.   This was the Marks & Spenser of ‘getting your guts up’. Just when I was straightening up, thinking “that must be it” I would bend double again just to see if my body could tense itself up even more and I could squeeze any more out.   And while I was doing this (as quietly as possible) I was acutely aware that there were 15 people about ten feet away that didn’t want to see/hear my troubles. I honestly don’t know if anyone realised what I was doing, but I’m sure someone must have heard…or maybe not. I’ll never know though, because as I was straightening up for the last time, thinking that I’d fucked everything up by having too much coffee, feeling that horrible weak wobble after doing something you really didn’t want to do, and thinking that emptying my stomach was absolutely the last thing I needed to do….when my pizza arrived.

What should have been a brilliant strategic moment of ultra-running nutrition combined with calories-on-a-moped turned into a “Oh, god, there’s no way I can eat a pizza right now”. Rachel was shouting for me, the poor pizza delivery guy was completely bemused as to what we were all doing in the dark, and I walked away from the bushes of puke to get my pizza from him. Luckily I’d had the foresight to order two pizzas (one for me, one for everyone else – don’t want to be too generous) and I slung the second in the middle of the seating area with an invitation to everyone to get stuck in. Lindley popped up from somewhere (no idea how) and took a picture!

Lindleys picture.  You can see my majestic blue foot at the left hand side.  Javed is sitting on his roller mat.

Lindleys picture. You can see my majestic blue foot at the left hand side. Javed is sitting on his roller mat.

My plan had always been to eat the pizza on the move, as I’ve found it doesn’t slow me down too much and gives it longer to digest. With hindsight, I should probably have sat for another 30 minutes, giving my stomach time to settle before setting off, but without thinking really I set off from the checkpoint, pizza in hand. It was about 11pm.

Mile 55 to 82.

Average pace 16m/m

Total time at end of stage 22 hrs 41 (according to tracker)

I’d like to say the pizza was magic, as usual, and it slipped down great. But trying to eat pizza 5 minutes after being violently sick was not great. To my credit, I persevered for about 40 minutes. In that time I managed about a slice and a half. I could chew it to a paste in my mouth, and then I’d take a mouthful of water, swill, swallow, and repeat. Trust me; it was a criminal waste of good pizza. After doing this for a while to force some much needed food inside me, I lost the will to get even more water inside my sloshing stomach. I was like a walking water-balloon. I slung the rest of the pizza away, knowing full well that I was throwing away the calories I would need for the following day. This wasn’t going to end well, unless something amazing happened.

I was heading through the night in the company of a guy called Ben now. Ben was a stocky runner, who was perhaps slightly less confident in the navigation that I was…or perhaps he was better at knowing when we were lost than I was. Anyway, we stuck together for the night, got lost a few times, found the right way a few times. I’m still not sure whether we were incredibly lucky or clueless by how often we accidentally found the correct path, but whichever we kept moving forward. Ben had done a few big ultras (including UTMB) in the past, and was very strong. He managed to keep up a gentle run at my strong marching pace, and together we watched the sun come up. It was probably only dark for about 5 or 6 hours, but there was a long stretch at about 2am (which is usually my lowest point) where I felt like we were just constantly walking uphill forever.

Overnight, we caught up to Spenser (star-trek-navigator-thingy-still-on-his-wrist) who had gone from the strong challenger at about mile 45 to a shuffler. He looked rough, and the difference in the space of a few hours was a shock. He was OK though, just a bit of a tough patch, and plodded along behind us.

Sometime in the early Thursday morning we moved from the Thames Path, and onto the Grand Union Canal. It was like coming home for me, as I like the canal and its calming atmosphere. Also, it was very difficult to get lost when all you had to do was follow a canal towpath. Flat, leafy, minimal people…lovely.

Overnight, my wee was still very very dark. It was difficult to tell in the torchlight, but it was either the dark-brown of marmite (but not the consistency of marmite I should add!) or the reddish-brown of bloody water. I’d heard stories of blood in urine, which never usually boded well, resulting in kidney damage and other pesky things. Hopefully I was just dehydrated. I was drinking plain water, but not eating anything. I just couldn’t seem to swallow anything.

When the sun was up, it was nice to be able to remove my head torch and reflect that the first night was over. I knew the nights would be the worst time, as usually I could just ‘caffeine’ my way through them, but this would mean I would not sleep properly at the next checkpoint, so I had to forego the coffee for the greater good of better sleep. A sensible trade-off I thought. The night hadn’t been pleasant, in fact it had been tiring and annoying, but it was over and I now had hours of daylight. It was dawning on me though that it was very likely I would still be going through Saturday night, in order to finish before the cut-off at 2pm Sunday. This was a bit of a blow, as I’d hoped to finish by late Saturday, hence only having to suffer through three nights (Wed, Thu, Fri) but at the pace I was doing, I would clearly be out there for a while.

And then my phone went off.

I should explain that I had expected to feel pretty shit at various stages of the race, and in order to keep my mind in as positive a place as possible, I had asked for friends from my running club (the awesome Thanet Roadrunners) to call me at various times in order to give me a bit of a boost. I find I can’t be faffed to check twitter or Facebook when I’m on the go, but I’d set my phone to answer automatically if I was listening to something on my earphones, so I could talk to callers without having to take my phone out of my rucksack. It worked amazing well, and I was lucky enough to get more calls that I can mention from friends as I ran.

So, it was about 5.30am on Thursday morning, I was feeling OK but perhaps a little groggy from a tough night and little to eat, and I had the pleasure of calls from John H & Michelle, which was a great way to focus on what was ahead rather than what was behind me. Good start to the day.

I got to the checkpoint 3 at Yiewsley at about 8am I think. There was a nice grass verge that looking just right for a snooze, and I was planning on sleeping here for about 90 minutes, and then eating. The sun was up and I felt that with a good sleep, my stomach could deal with the water sloshing around in it, and then I’d awake ravenous and ready to eat enough calories for a day’s running. Good!

My sleeping arrangements at checkpoint 3.  Nice grass verge!

My sleeping arrangements at checkpoint 3. Nice grass verge!

I slept really well, after a couple of cups of orange juice, and although I set my alarm for 90 minutes I woke up unaided in 82 minutes. I felt this was a good omen (clearly I wasn’t that tired!) and I stood up, stretched, and looked for somewhere to go to the toilet. Another good sign, my wee was back to golden yellow (I promise I stop talking about this soon!) and I’d clearly dealt with all the water in my stomach. I was stiff, but not disastrously, so I was feeling quite positive. Even better, there were still people arriving at the checkpoint that I’d just spent 90 minutes sleeping at, so I wasn’t last (my usual default position).

And this dear reader, is where you joined the travels of “BobWild – Adventurer, Spy, Lover” and you’ll remember (if you’ve made it this far) that far from enjoying a hearty breakfast to give me the calories I needed for the day ahead, I could eat nothing without retching. Not even a buggerdly Tuc biscuit just to get something into my stomach.

It was clear that I couldn’t carry on forever like this, but the bizarre thing is that I wasn’t (yet) feeling exhausted – though that would come. I simply accepted that I wasn’t going to be forcing anything down, got my kit together and got on the move.

Mile 82 – 105.

Average pace 17m/m

Total time at end of leg 30 hrs 30 mins (according to tracker)

I didn’t set off feeling anything other than frustrated that my body wasn’t playing by well-established rules. I would run/walk as far as I needed to, chucking junk calories down my neck as I felt like it. My body would protest, but ultimately come through with the goods, propelling me to the finish line, and then in the following few days would make me pay by swelling/aching/throbbing/peeling until we negotiated a truce. Simples!

But without the junk calories, clearly we were playing a different game. To be fair to my legs & body, perhaps I changed the game by attempting a 250 mile run….slightly further than usual.

Setting off on Thursday morning, perhaps carrying enough for a week?

Setting off on Thursday morning, perhaps carrying enough for a week?

I spent the first 5 miles of this leg chatting to a guy who was in a surprisingly similar position to me. I didn’t catch his name, but he was questioning his reasons for doing this particular challenge. I was in the same place, wondering what I had left to prove to myself in running along way. I didn’t catch the name of this guy (whoops) but it was odd that we both had the same thoughts at the same time, and although they may sound negative, I think they were rather more a reflection on what we had left to face. No question of carrying on to the end of this race, but to think harder & longer before entering the next one. We parted company when we both needed a poo at the same time…he went off to ask some offices we were passing if he could borrow their facilities, and I (as is my custom) went to find a bush. For the record, mine was small but a lovely consistency and colour…no problems there (even if it was food from 24 hours ago)!

Settling in for the long haul now, I put on an audio book (Dick Francis if you’re interested, 11 hours long and a really good way to make the time pass) and put my head down. I was heading for the checkpoint at mile 105, which felt like a good milestone, and I had given myself an hour there to change shoes & socks and (again) try to eat.

I remember spending a lot of this leg fantasising about an ice cream. It was still hot and an iced lolly seemed to be the absolute pinnacle of fine dining. Naturally, there wasn’t a shop to be found which I found myself getting quite angry at. After perhaps 10 miles I came across a couple of runners having chips at a little café alongside the canal. And all I wanted was an ice cream. But the shop nearby was closed (back in 10 bloody minutes is no good to me!) and so I made myself carry on. Again, with hindsight, maybe a chat and a sit, with some salty chips would have hit the spot, but at the time I was fixed on cool creamy ice cream.

It was shortly after this I came across a guy called Jon, not a competitor but just a runner out for the morning, who asked what we were all doing and then kept me company for ages chatting about the event and other things. It was great to let the miles slide by without thinking. Jon kept me company until shortly before the next checkpoint and then had to run back to where we met! Apart from a can of coke from a pub, there wasn’t much to say except thanks! (Apart from his starring piece in this version of War & Peace, obviously).

Lovely scenery all the way

Lovely scenery all the way

I suspect this leg would have been much tougher without Jon to take the edge off, as I was tired, getting pissed off and it was hot again. As it headed towards mid-afternoon it felt like the heat was just radiating out of me, although there was a slight breeze thank goodness. The scenery was still great though, with some lovely stretches of deserted countryside interspersed with the odd village.

I arrived at checkpoint 4 at Berkhamsted, and felt good surprisingly. It was early afternoon I think, everyone had thrown themselves down on the grass outside a pub and the sun was shining (which was nice when stationary, only a pain when motoring along). I had a luxurious hour to change shoes & socks and do a bit of kit stuff, as well as eat. I’d decided to change my eating plan (which clearly wasn’t working anyway) and head back to my old faithful of ravioli. I’d brought along a couple of ‘emergency’ tins in my drop bags, in case I fancied them, and pulled one out for the volunteers to heat up. Once again, the volunteers were amazing, offering help with anything and suggesting things to eat or drink that I suspect many of us wouldn’t have thought of. Once again, my feet seemed to be in great shape, and a new set of socks felt lovely going on. I was changing to trail shoes now, as the terrain was moving from reasonable canal path to the occasional stretch of grassy track, which was a challenge. Also, the soles of my feet were just starting to get a bit bruised from the pounding, and the trail shoes would protect that a bit with their harder soles. However, my feet & legs were holding up better than I could have hoped at 100 miles, with no specific problems apart from general fatigue.

Happy selfie at cp4....still able to smile!

Happy selfie at cp4….still able to smile!

Lovely surroundings at cp4

Lovely surroundings at cp4

The ravioli arrived as I finished faffing with my kit. I eyed it nervously. The last two times I’d tried to eat had not gone well, and this orangey gloop in a cup didn’t inspire confidence. I’d got 2 paracetamol and 2 ibuprofen out in readiness (and hopefulness) in case I could eat, and they smiled up at me from the grass offering relief form the inevitable pain.

I ate the ravioli…and it was good! With more relief that I probably should have felt, I ate about three-quarters of the tin, and it stayed down. Magic. I wouldn’t go as far as to say all my problems were over, but I hoped this was the end of the eating problems. That would be good. With some hot food inside me, I lay back on the grass and enjoyed the sunshine.

 

Having a lie down in the sun at cp4.  Feeling good!

Having a lie down in the sun at cp4. Feeling good!

While I was there I saw Rich, Javed and a few others come into the checkpoint and go to sleep (I don’t think they’d slept earlier that day as I had.)

This is what they do with dead runners...with Rich Cranswick at least.

This is what they do with dead runners…with Rich Cranswick at least.

Mile 105 – 132

Average pace 17.15m/m

Total time at end of leg 37hours 55mins (according to tracker)

So, I left that checkpoint in good spirits, with hot food inside me and a plan. It was very hot still, but I got into the habit of stopping every mile or so to wet my cap & buff in the canal and basically keeping my core temp down with these. It worked, and was even better when I poured cold water over my thighs: bliss. I was still listening to my audio book and the miles were passing nicely. Still very hot but I could cope with it. The scenery was just as nice as always too, and I was taking a bit more notice of the canal boats I was passing. I was taking it easy, stopping every 6 miles or so for a mouthful of lukewarm, weak coffee to give my stomach something else to play with other than water.

Even after 100 miles I was bounding up the smallest slope...oh no, hang on......

Even after 100 miles I was bounding up the smallest slope…oh no, hang on……

I started getting phone calls from my running club about 4pm this afternoon, and would continue to get them pretty much consistently all the way to the end. Once again, too many calls to list them, but they were all positive and cheerful, and thanks to everyone that called me for giving up their time to talk to me, it helped a lot.

I was soon going to hit a 24 hour Tesco, at Leighton Buzzard, and I was talking to myself about what I could treat myself to, to keep my calorie intake going. In the end (and it took a while to decide) I chose a simple apple (crunchy, juicy, cold, tasty, yumyumyum) and a cold bottle of something fizzy. Having drunk bland water for the last few days it was going to be a real treat.

It was just about dusk when I came off the canal path to go into Tesco, and I went through self-serve till to get my apple & drink…it took me ages to get the damn till to work, showing how mentally tired I was.

I got back out on the track, and took my first bite of the apple. Mmmmm. The canal path wasn’t busy, but there were a few people milling about at 8pm, enjoying the warm evening. By bite three I was loving the apple, and the taste in my mouth, which made it all the more surprising when I had to stumble to the bushes and puke the whole lot up again. Saying sorry to passers-by, between retches, probably wasn’t the highest point of my run, however, I am a polite man. It was so annoying, so frustrating, that I felt I was back to square one. After a relatively short space of time, I felt OK, and I apologised again to a girl with two dogs that clearly thought I was the devil (maybe she was right).

That apple was probably the start of the end if I’m honest. A few people since have told me that an acidic apple is the absolute last thing I should have eaten with a dodgy stomach, and hindsight is a wonderful thing. It was the shock of being sick again that surprised me I think. Even as I watched the liquid pour from me, I remember vividly thinking thank goodness that I’d digested the lunchtime ravioli, all I had in my stomach was a little coffee, water and three bites of apple. But it didn’t change the fact that I was back to square one (in my mind) of empty stomach, feeling rubbish, getting dark. Just keep moving forward I told myself. Just head towards morning.

The next big milestone was going to be the checkpoint 6, Nether Heyford, at mile 156 (which was the one after next at mile 130) as this was going to be my next sleep and proper rest. Nether Heyford was the one that the cut-offs became relatively generous onwards, so you could slow a bit as required and still get to the next checkpoint in time.

My phone calls kept coming as I kept moving, and I was pushing hard to get to the next checkpoint at Milton Keynes and then keep moving to CP6. I was clear with everyone (in amongst a lot of swearing I’m afraid) that checkpoint 6, Nether Heyford was the target.

I had quite a tough time heading into that night, knowing that it was going to be a long night and I hit the checkpoint at Milton Keynes at about midnight with an attitude of “I’m not staying long”. One of my callers, Derek, who kept me going with numerous calls throughout the night, had suggested trying hot sugary water at the next checkpoint, just to get some glucose inside me. Two cups of that, a couple of cups of orange juice, and I tried a plateful of baked beans (nope, sorry, not happening). I was off again.

I had my picture taken at this checkpoint. Not pretty, but I reckon I look better than I felt. My memories of this particular checkpoint are….hazy.

130 mile checkpoint, about midnight.  I'm pooped (but smiling somehow).

130 mile checkpoint, about midnight. I’m pooped (but smiling somehow).

Mile 135 – 156

Average pace 22m/m

Total time at end of leg 48 hours 31 minutes (according to tracker)

And on into the night. I was still moving forward, but quite slowly. And a new problem was making its presence felt. I was needing to stop every 20 paces or so, and straighten my back. Imagine the movement where you put both hands into the small of your back and arch your back, to hear it click and crack and generally relieve stiffness. I’m not sure why I was needing to do it (or so often) but it was becoming a big requirement. Soon, I was having to steady myself on a tree as I arched my back and although the symptoms relieved themselves immediately I stretched, I was counting the paces until I could stretch again. It was becoming torture.

I was telling myself that lying down for a ten minute sleep was the worst thing I could do now, as I would get stiff and cold and definitely wouldn’t want to get up, but by 7 miles distance from the last checkpoint (and hence about 20 miles to the next checkpoint, at the magic mile 156) I lay on the ground, set the timer on my phone to alarm in 10 minutes, and fell asleep immediately on the path. I’d read of others doing this and couldn’t see the point, but to be fair I woke with the alarm going off, and forced myself to my feet. The relief of getting off my feet was huge, and actually more than made up for the discomfort of getting warmed up again. My back was still killing me though.

Derek, one of my callers, had already spoken to me a few times through the night, and agreed to call me every 45 minutes to keep me going. Some of these calls only lasted a few minutes….one lasted 14 minutes, poor guy. I remember telling him that for some reason when I was walking along my left hand was level with my left knee, which must have been bending my back over horrendously… hence my need to stop and stretch it out every 20 steps. I think, looking back, it was all related to some damage I’d done at some point that evening to my right leg (of which, more later) which was meaning I was compensating with my back and generally trashing every muscle I had left.

Derek talked me through to another sleep at mile 14 (20 minutes this time) and shortly after waking up I found a stick. Just a simple stick, but by taking a lot of weight on it on my left side, I was able to stand up straighter and hence my back was much more manageable. I was still stopping to stretch, but probably every 30 or 40 paces, and the underlying pain was slightly better.

I was lucky enough to continue to get a lot of calls as the sun came up, and a new day started. These calls are universally acknowledged by my callers to be ‘sweary’. I vividly remember one caller, Warren, who did absolutely the right thing in talking to me about the lovely dawn I must have seen and the great countryside I must be passing through. Apparently my reply was “fuck the sun” or something similar. Sorry Warren.

Once again, I must say that these calls were brilliant, taking my mind off the aches and pains, allowing me to vent to a sympathetic voice, and most of all have people telling me how well I was doing. I’m convinced that one of the reasons I kept going for as long as I did was knowing the support I had out there.

Some of the facebook 'updates' were great...

That was a tough night, no doubt, probably one of the toughest things I’ve got through in a while. It was a combination of my back feeling like hot pins were poking in, tiredness, and the general tiredness from having been on the go for 44 hours without enough food. As I got closer to the checkpoint at mile 156, I could feel my energy levels at rock bottom, and while I knew I would be able to sleep there, I would have to eat first to give me a something to digest while I was asleep.

I vividly remember a long long slope, up over the Blissworth tunnel, where the canal goes through a hill, but the path goes over the hill. I’ve been over this hill a number of times, and it’s a pain but it’s not a mountain. I had to shuffle up this slope, stopping every 5 steps or so to lean on my stick and catch my breath. I remember thinking to myself what I’d been brought down to by a simple slope, which I normally would run up chatting. Tough times. After the hill, I was so pooped I gave myself another 10 minutes sleep on a bench, just to get some strength back.

Although my Garmin suggested I only had 3 or 4 miles to go, I started being caught by other competitors who looked in good shape (compared to me!)  

More facebook

More facebook

Javed overtook me, still running, and still cheerful (don’t forget, he’d done about 400 miles at this point). I told him I couldn’t understand how he was still behind me as I was going so slowly. He explained he’d lost 2 hours taking care of a runner who was projectile vomiting, and another who was very confused. I’d read about these runners who get so disorientated and confused they forget what they’re doing. True to form, Javed (& Rich, apparently) had given up their own race time to help the next person. Javed asked what was up with me and I explained about my back (not that it needed too much explaining, as I was walking with a bloody stick like Gandalf). He said he’d leave his foam roller out for me at the next checkpoint to see if that would ease some of the pain. A good guy.

The next couple of guys went past me, and seemed to be suggesting it was a lot further than 3-4 miles to the next checkpoint. I was already looking at about 1.5 – 2 hours of pain….the thought of it being double this was just horrible. It was daylight, but I was shattered and the usual lift I get from daylight wasn’t working. I slogged on. I’ve no idea how long I spent waiting to get to the checkpoint, but it felt like days, and I felt no pleasure in getting there, just a sense of relief.

However, I had got there. It was 10.30am. The previous night I’d expected to be there by 8am latest – see how slow I was going! The checkpoint closed at 3pm, which meant if I didn’t leave by then I would be disqualified. I decided to aim to leave by 2pm, in order to give me an hour’s grace on the cut-off if I needed it at the next checkpoint.   This meant I had 3.5 hours. I could use that! Half an hour to get ready to sleep and eat a little, 2 hours sleep, and then an hour after to get some more food inside me and sort out my kit for the next leg.

The checkpoint volunteers were, as ever, brilliant: nothing was too much trouble. I slumped in a corner near Javed (who was fast asleep in another corner) and sorted my feet (still no blisters… magic) and changed clothes. I switched my phone to flight mode (no phone calls to interrupt my beauty sleep, thanks) and set the alarm for 2 hours. Then I had about 4 cartons of orange juice, 2 or 3 cups of hot sugary water (still nice) and best of all, some pasta in a sort of minestrone soup. Kept it all down too, which was great. Although I didn’t feel hungry, just tired, I reckon I should have eaten a lot more here, and allowed my body to digest it while sleeping.

The other thing I did, before sleep, was text my wife. Obviously she knew things weren’t going according to plan, and I texted to say I may need picking up that evening if I dropped out. I liked the idea of waking up raring to go with a whole new energy bank charged and set, but the reality was not quite so pleasant. I was still lucid enough to know that if I was going to drop out, I’d be far better to do it voluntarily in daylight, rather than collapsing in the dark under a bridge somewhere and being found and raised by otters.

Sleeeeeeeeep.

But just as I was going to sleep, I seem to remember some conversation amongst the volunteers that they’d had to leave the main hall area as there was a Zumba class in there for an hour. As I went to sleep I pondered the idea of joining in the Zumba class, with the little energy I had left. This may have been entirely a dream.

Selfie just before leaving cp6.  Not smiling anymore !

Selfie just before leaving cp6. Not smiling anymore !

It was amazing how much better I felt when I woke up. Just a little happier, a little more energy, a little more positive. I could even see a point to carrying on.

Walking wounded hospital at cp6.  I think that is Darren in the orange, being tended to by Maxine.

Walking wounded hospital at cp6. I think that is Darren in the orange, being tended to by Maxine.

Javed was up and about when I woke, and he looked good, still strong and cheerful. I quickly sorted my feet and got my socks and shoes sorted. Fourth pair of shoes, only one more pair to go for mile 200 to 250, I remember thinking. I moved from the sleeping room to the main room (no sign of any Zumba instructors). Another pasta meal, and more orange juice, I looked at the competitors around me. They looked smashed. A couple were having their feet taped up by the lovely Maxine, the medic (not a job I’d choose), I saw her lancing blisters on one poor guy which looked painful. Darren, a guy I’d run a bit with at the start was there, also looking smashed. It felt like a hospital for walking wounded. And I felt like I belonged there. There were probably 4 or 5 still there as I finished my last bit of hot food, and I could be wrong, but I don’t think Spenser had even arrived at that stage, let alone slept or fed.

My 2pm time limit was approaching, so I shrugged on my rucksack, which although I’d taken out everything but the most essential stuff (i.e. water, food, waterproof, map, one flask of hot sugary water) still felt like it weighted a ton. I collected my stick.   One of the fantastic volunteers walked me back to the canal, chatting all the way, and made sure I headed right on the canal not left (taking me back to London, now that would be frustrating). I was with it enough at that stage to ask him to take my picture, and I’m quite surprised how I look mostly ok. It was shortly after 2pm on Friday, I’d been going since 10am Wednesday, and I’d had a total of 4 hours 10 minutes sleep. I’d eaten little more than a couple of slices of pizza, a tin of ravioli, and litres of water, and I’d been violently sick twice. To be fair, I probably should not have been able to keep going then. 

Me and my stick!  This was just as I re-joined the canal after checkpoint 6 at mile 156.

Me and my stick! This was just as I re-joined the canal after checkpoint 6 at mile 156.

 

Mile 156-the end

Average pace 28.10 m/m (slooooowwwww)

Don’t worry; we’re nearly at the end!

It didn’t take long for the energy levels I’d felt at the aid station to fade. My left arm was aching having been using a stick to support my back for the last 15 miles, and I had returned to stopping to stretch my back every 5 or 6 paces. It probably took about 5 miles to start to feel the pain & exhaustion in all its glory again.

My phone calls started again from my support network. Almost the minute I switched my phone back on was from John H, one of the most frequent callers. I suspect he could hear in my voice that I was suffering. I asked him to get my wife to call me. To his eternal credit, he didn’t try to talk me out of it, didn’t tell me to toughen up, didn’t tell me to wait for 5 miles and then decide, didn’t hang up (god!), and didn’t call me a loser. Just did what I asked, really quickly.

At that stage, I was suffering horribly, in as much all-over pain as I can recall, but that wasn’t the deciding factor. Even the slow slow pace I was going, which was telling me I probably wouldn’t make the checkpoint cut-offs, wasn’t the reason I decided to drop out. Actually it was the thought of not one but two more nights to cope with before finishing. That deep deep low at about 2am, knowing that there are hours to go until daylight. Even now, a week later, it feels absolutely inconceivable to think I could have coped with more nights. As you read about every so often in stories, you can withhold stress and pain to a certain level, but at some point you reach a stage that if it is within your power to stop the pain, then you will. Whether that is to tell the secrets you want to withhold, or to let go of something you want to hang onto, I’d reached the stage that I needed a way to make it stop.

Just.

Make.

It.

Stop.

I’d love to say I’m just like James Bond, but apparently I’m not.

So I called my wife, to say if she left now she’d get to me at about 7 or 8 pm, before it got dark, and by then I’d be ready to stop. This still meant about 4 hours of plodding, but I felt I’d be able to get to mile 172 by then, which I had stuck in my head as a satisfactory distance. No idea why.

It was about here I met another competitor John, running towards me, looking pretty agitated, and asking which way to race HQ. He was quite jumpy, and had spoken to his wife explaining how he wasn’t sure what he was doing. She’d tried to get him moving towards the next checkpoint (or race HQ as he saw it), but he couldn’t work out which way to go. I was in my own world of pain, but was happy to have a sit with him for a minute while I looked at the map to get my bearings. He even had a cup of my hot sugary water (isn’t that what you take for shock?) as he conversationally said he thought he might have had a stroke. (No signs of it though, I was pleased to note, but he was gabbling away so there was clearly something wrong). He helped me to my feet (which was quite amusing at the time) and we set off in the right direction to find the next bridge and hence know where we were.   John was worried that he’d be pulled out if the medic did come out to see him, and it took quite some effort to keep him with me rather than him running ahead (god only knows how he could run at that stage, but he could). At the next bridge, we got hold of his wife again, and made arrangements for the medic to meet us at the next lock, only about 15 minutes away (my speed) or 5 mins (Johns lunatic speed) so I let him on ahead on the promise that he would stop at the next lock and wait for me. 15 minutes later, he’s somehow got himself to the other side of the canal, running up and down a car park looking for the medic van, while I’m shouting at him to get back over this side of the bloody canal. A great spectator sport I’m sure, for the afternoon walkers.

Soon enough, Maxine turns up, and we have a sit on a lock (once again, any excuse for a sit down) as she feeds John some sushi. He’s extremely worried about not being allowed to carry on, and it takes both of us to persuade him that 10 minutes in the back of the van asleep will not stop him from carrying on. In fact, he’s much better after this sleep and carries on, only to drop out a little later. His wife sent me a lovely thank you on Facebook, and it was nice to get something positive out of those last few miles.

I dragged those last few miles out. They were hard. Every so often there was a lock, which required about 15 stairs to go up, or a short steep slope. It made little difference which route I took as I had to sit at the top for a rest. Having made the decision to stop, I won’t say I was happy, but I was relieved that there was an end in sight. My phone calls carried on, and every single person was supportive of my decision. That meant such a lot.

I stopped for an ice cream at a canal side shop. I actually had to sit down in the shop while I got the money out as there was no way I was going to be able to stand. The guy in the shop said there’d been a few runners through, and they looked tired too.

And then a few miles on, I saw a pub. It was called the New Inn, and was on a reasonably main road over the canal (rather than tucked away from anywhere). And I thought “That’s far enough”.

In the pub, I got a cup of tea, with more magic sugar, a pint of water, a bag of crisps and lots of looks. An old boy at the bar asked me what I was doing, and I said I’d just gone about 170 miles of a 250 miles race, but I was calling it a day. “Fair enough” he said. Priceless.

I found a corner, and called Lindley to say I was dropping out. To his credit he said I had loads of time, was I sure? Oh yes, I was sure. I think he heard in my voice that I was finished. He said he’d get the awesome Maxine to come get me as soon as possible.

I sat in the pub, drank my tea, and had one more phone call, from Pam, the next Thanet Roadrunner ultra-runner… I thought that was quite fitting.

I watched people in the pub around me with normal (boring) lives. Then I went to sleep.

Half an hour later, the old boy from the bar was shaking me awake, asking if I was OK and if I needed a lift anywhere. Nice guy.

Maxine arrived and whisked me away to the next checkpoint.

Lots of care and attention at the checkpoint, but I was ok, just tired. I met John’s wife, who said thanks. I waited for my wife to whisk me back to real life.

Home at about midnight Friday night. (There were some guys still going out there.)

Awake at 4am. Hobbled downstairs for beer and Doritos (…….starting the recovery quickly!). Looking at the tracker, to see guys still going.

This is what you call planning!  Post-race recovery sorted...

This is what you call planning! Post-race recovery sorted…

Saturday morning, glued to the sofa, no appetite, pleased to be home though. Runners are still going.

Saturday afternoon, in the garden with the family, having a barbeque. There are runners still going, how can they still be going?

Saturday night. There are still runners out there. I’ve been home for a day. How?

Sunday morning. People start to finish, lots of Facebook updates. I’m watching Darren & Spenser. I can’t conceive how they have coped with another two nights out there. But they have. Rich has sped up over the last 40 miles and finishes joint second. Javed finishes his second lap in about 86 hours, compared to his first in 81 hours. Extraordinary.  The overall winner completes in an amazing 68 hours, a new female record.

But I watch Darren and Spenser. Darren finished with three hours to spare. There is a picture of him at the end looking like a desert island castaway. He has some tough reserves!

And Spenser?   Well, my whole family (and most of the internet) gathered to watch his tracker finish with 5 minutes to spare – yes, 99 hours and 55 minutes. I have no idea how he did it, but he did. What he must have gone through, with his star-trek-navigator-thingy…I’ve no idea. But I salute him for his fortitude.

And me?

Well, after a few days of aches and pain, I’m just left with my right leg still swollen and hurting. Two doctors on Tuesday told me I had ripped my cruciate ligament (which basically holds my knee together) and when I asked how long that would take to mend, shook their heads sadly and said it required reconstructive surgery and 6-9 months rehabilitation. That was a shock, I can tell you.

However, a consultant on Wednesday said it couldn’t be that, but he rushed me to an mri scanner that afternoon for 90 minutes of scanning to understand what exactly I have done. A bit scary.

Interestingly, my wife said I should weigh myself, to see how much I’d lost, as the first thing she said to me when picking me up was “Your face has changed shape”. So on Sunday morning, 36 hours after being driven home, after lots of beer (I was definitely fully hydrated) and at least 2 or 3 good meals, I did. I had, at that stage, still lost 7 lbs on my normal weight (putting me at about 153 lbs). I’m going to guess I lost double that over the course of the 68 hours I ran.

So I wait, and wonder.

My first ‘proper’ DNF (did not finish). I’m not massively unhappy as I made it a fair way, and there was no way I could have carried on. Physically I was done, and mentally too I think. That is where I can’t really beat myself up as it was inconceivable that I try to carry on through another night.

Sad? Yes, as the medal was something I aspired to, and I like to complete things I start. But satisfied that I gave it my best shot? Yes. I gave it what I had.

So, a few thanks:

Lindley Chambers and volunteers, for a near-flawless race. For your cheery helpfulness, for your support and kindness. I don’t really know how else to put it. Thanks.

To all those at Thanet Roadrunners, who gave up their time to call me in my hour of need, giving just amazing support. To John, Jon and Mark for all your help, support and guidance – owe you a beer or three guys. To Derek, who apparently doesn’t need sleep, but instead can spend the night calling lunatics in the dark by canals, to keep them sane. I have no words that sum up my gratitude.

Thanks to my wife & kids for putting up with my lunatic ideas. I promise I’ll plan nothing stupid for at least a week now. Especially you Claire, who drove to get me two days before we planned, without complaining (too much) and then didn’t even complain when I sat around the house for the next few days drinking beer and eating Doritos, feeling sorry for myself.

I’d also like to say thanks to my legs for all their support (boom tish!) and I will continue to punish my misbehaving stomach with too much beer and Doritos for a few days more – that’ll teach it.

And thanks, I guess, to you for giving up a piece of your life to read this. Apologies for the lack of excitement, women, daring and general heroics. Apologies for the abundance of wee, vomit and sweat. I’ll do better next time I’m sure. Thanks for reading.

Bob

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3 comments

  1. What a bloody brilliant read, not to mention a superlative achievement. This is going to sound insane, but the more I read the more it made me want to do it as well. Every two years, you say? 🙂

    Like

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