Thames Ring 250 race (DNF) report

TR250 route map
TR250 route map

My second DNF in two races wasn’t what I was planning when I started the Thames Ring 250 on Wednesday morning.  But with an historical completion rate of just 44%, it was likely that the majority of the 52 starters would drop out during the next four days – and that is what happened to me.

The Thames Ring 250 is a race for runners and no one had previously completed the 250 miles (400km) by walking every step of the journey.  Whilst all the runners will walk at some stage, and those further back in the pack will walk larger portions of the race, the cut off times at the 9 checkpoints along the way require a reasonable walking pace but nothing that I’m not capable of.

Pre-race

I dropped out of the Grand Union Canal Race on the last weekend of May at 100 miles using the Thames Ring 250 as an excuse.  I wasn’t having a great race and decided I should save myself for the Thames Ring rather than struggling through the last 45 miles.

But shortly after the GUCR I found myself struggling with a minor knee injury which prevented any training other than short maintenance walks between the two races.  Three visits to the Osteopath though, and my knee appeared to be recovered.

On the Sunday before the race I had to travel to Amsterdam for work, returning on the night before the race, but I can’t use this as an excuse either, given that my fastest 100 mile time of 2017 was in the Dublin to Belfast Ultra which started the day after I returned from a work trip to Kiev.

And in the leadup to the race I slept reasonably well, so all up, by the time race day arrived I was in reasonable condition and fully expecting to walk a reasonable race.

Start to Checkpoint 1 – Goring to Hurley

27.25 miles – cut-off time 7 ½ hours

My wife Ruth dropped me off at Goring at around 8:30 on race morning, giving me plenty of time to register for the race, chat with other competitors, and have a short lie down under a table in the corner of the room used for registration.

Thames Ring 250 race briefing
Race Director Lindley Chambers

Lindley Chambers, the Thames Ring 250 race director, gave us a short briefing about 30 minutes before race start and we then walked down to the start line which was at the start of a side street that leads down to the river.  As the only walker in the field, I stood at the back and let all the runners head off in front of me when the race started.  I figured that it would be a long race and there was no need for me to start too fast.

The first few hours of the race were uneventful.  I passed one other competitors very early on, and played a bit of cat and mouse with a few others, but was generally in second to last most of the morning and early afternoon.

We had been warned during the pre-race briefing that the Henley rowing regatta was on and that potentially we would have to go around this rather than following the Thames Path trail alongside the river through Henley.  This was a little disorganised and I think we probably all took different routes around the regatta.  In my case I walked down a road a block or so away from the river and eventually climbed a fence to get back to the river, walking through a paddock that was being used to park cars.

Thames Ring 250 race start
Thames Ring 250 race start

Soon afterwards I caught and passed a couple of runners including Roz Glover who was run-walking from the start due to a hip injury and Kate Jayden who ran from London to Paris and cycled back on the same weekend that I circumnavigated the M25 motorway back at the beginning of May.  All three of us had dropped out of the Grand Union Canal Race at the end of May, and unfortunately all three of us would fail to finish the Thames Ring too.

At about 24 or 25 miles into the race Kate and I made our first big mistake.  The map said to head away from the river and then turn left just past a pub.  I was 50 meters or so ahead of Kate and my map reading skills aren’t great at the best of times.  I couldn’t see a left hand corner and assumed that the road going straight ahead was probably where we needed to go.  And maybe turn left at some stage.

The road went up hill and as I walked I kept looking behind me to check that Kate was following.  She was, so I hoped that meant I was going the right way and continued up the hill.  I walked about a mile before reaching the top of the hill and a T intersection where I stopped to study the map.  As Kate reached the top of the hill she called out that we must have missed the turnoff, and we agreed to head back down the hill again.

Kate took off and I followed at a slower pace.  Soon she was out of sight and after 12 minutes I reached the pub at the bottom of the hill.  Still no sign of the road we should have turned down, and now no sign of Kate either!

I turned round to head back up the hill again and saw a small Thames Path sign at the start of what looked like a private driveway.  I followed the sign and realised I was back on course.  I had lost about 30 minutes and covered two bonus miles.  Bonus Miles are one of the benefits that come with races where you have to follow a map, and on talking to other competitors during and after the race I found that Kate and I weren’t the only ones to miss the turnoff – although we were the only ones to go right to the top of the hill!

In the end it took me 6 hours and 20 minutes to reach the first checkpoint.  I was second to last to arrive.  The person I had passed very early on was still behind me, but the others I had passed, before getting lost were all ahead of me again.  Kate was the only runner still at the checkpoint when I arrived, and from memory I left a few minutes later while she was still sorting her things out.  My plan was to spend as little time as possible in the checkpoints – especially the first two or three.

Checkpoint 1 to Checkpoint 2 – Hurley to Chertsey

27.8 miles – total distance 55.05 miles – cut off time 15 ½ hours

One of the reasons I wanted to get through the checkpoints as quickly as possible is that I have found that the longer I stop, the harder it is to get back to a reasonable speed when I start again.  In a typical 100 mile or 24 hour racewalking event I wouldn’t stop at all, other than the occasional toilet stop.  Walking races are normally on a short circuit meaning that you pass your support crew or the race food table regularly and can collect food without breaking your stride.

In trail races you generally stop at each checkpoint to collect food for the next leg of the race, and I have found that these stops upset my rhythm causing me to average a slower pace overall and making the event feel much more difficult.

I don’t remember a lot of the next few hours other than that I was feeling worse than I should so early into a race of this distance.  From the start I had been eating every 30 to 40 minutes as I always do.  The majority of my nutrition was fruit, both dried and fresh, plus the occasional biscuit and bag of crisps.  My only liquid was water as I always try to avoid Coke for the first 12 hours of a race, but when I arrived at Windsor I needed something to give me a kickstart.

Google Maps told me that McDonalds was about 300 meters up the road and I figured that a 600 meter return trip was worth the investment to get some Coke, Chicken Nuggets and Fries – after all, Usain Bolt apparently eats McDonalds Chicken Nuggets before his races, and although my race was 4,000 times the distance that Usain races, I thought I would give his nutrition strategy a go.

McDonalds in Windsor
McDonalds in Windsor

And it worked!  Not long after finishing dinner I found myself back walking at a reasonable pace, and actually enjoying things again.  My only concern was that I had lost so much time, getting lost and going slow, that I thought I was in danger of missing the second checkpoint cut off time – which I thought was midnight.  I rang Ruth and asked her to check the race website to find out what the cut off times were but she couldn’t access the Word document that listed the checkpoints.  I then realised that Lindley’s cellphone number was listed as an emergency contact on our race number bibs and made the first of several calls that I would make to him over the next few days.  He assured me I had plenty of time.  The checkpoint didn’t close until 1:30am and the GPS tracker showed that I would make it with plenty of time to spare.

By now it was dark and I had put my spare head torch on.  I was carrying my spare as it is smaller and lighter than my main head torch (and also less powerful) and when I left checkpoint 1 I thought that at the most I would only need it for 30 to 60 minutes before getting to checkpoint 2.

In the end it took me 8 hours to walk the almost 28 miles between checkpoints, and I arrived at 20 past midnight.

I was the last person to arrive at the checkpoint.  There were at least 3 runners there when I arrived – Kate, who had passed me shortly after I collected my McDonalds at Windsor (I remember her asking me if that was McDonalds I was eating as she ran past me), Chris Edmonds who had finished the last Thames Ring 250 in 2015 but was suffering due to a back injury he had picked up in this years GUCR, and another guy, John, who announced that he was dropping out.  I think there may also have been one other runner trying to get some sleep too, but can’t remember.

It had started to rain about 30 minutes before I arrived at the checkpoint so I put my new Ultimate Direction jacket on, re-loaded by Ultimate Direction running vest with food for the next leg of the journey, changed my head torch, and headed off down the river about 2 or 3 minutes behind Chris.

Checkpoint 2 to Checkpoint 3 – Chertsey to Yiewsley

27.2 miles – total distance 82.25 miles – cut off time 24 ½ hours

It wasn’t raining too heavily and within another half hour the rain had stopped.  I caught Chris a few miles later when he was checking his map under a street light beside a corner where we had to head away from the river for a short way.

We walked together for a mile or two but Chris was struggling and I wanted to make the most of the opportunity to walk on the road, so I pulled ahead of him.  My feet were already extremely sore from the rutted paths alongside the river, and the smooth road surface was a relief.  I was able to walk a steady pace without too much pain.

I was also now starting to recognise the familiar territory as I had done a few training walks out towards Chertsey and my home in Kingston was only a few hours walk away.

After crossing the bridge at Walton I found one of the race maps lying on the ground and picked it up on the off chance that I would pass the runner who had dropped it.  We still had a reasonable distance to go to the next checkpoint and even I as a ‘local’ would need the map to ensure I didn’t get lost and crossed the correct bridges as we headed up the Grand Union Canal from Brentford, and if he wasn’t a local, then I was sure he would need the map he had dropped.

A few miles later I found the runner who had dropped his map.  He was sitting on the ground but I can’t remember what he was doing.  I gave him his map and headed off towards Hampton Court Palace.

I was feeling good.  I was on terrain that I cover regularly in training. It was a calm night and other than a bit of discomfort in my feet, I was now enjoying the race again.  24 hours later it would be a completely different story.

When I passed over the Kingston Bridge at about 4am there were six drunk students sprawled across the pavement.  Welcome to my home town 🙂

A couple miles later I stopped for a selfie next to Teddington Lock.  It was now 4:30am and I was about 300 meters from my house.  I was very tempted to go home and cook some porridge for breakfast, but given that I didn’t have my house key, and I suspected that going home for breakfast would break the race rules, I kept going – heading towards Richmond.

Teddington Lock
Looking a bit tired at Teddington Lock

After crossing Richmond Bridge I passed another runner and then another one just before Brentford where I stopped to buy a Coke from one of the shops that was just opening for business at the start of the day.  And then turned on to the Grand Union Canal.

Whilst I was enjoying the walk, and wasn’t yet struggling with tiredness despite having been awake for almost 24 hours, I was getting annoyed by the early morning runners who were gliding passed me as if they had just woken up from 8 hours sleep!  For some reason I felt as though they should know and respect what I was going through, and was annoyed that most of them were passing me effortlessly without any acknowledgment.

The section of the Grand Union Canal from Brentford through to Yiewsley seemed to take ages, but at least it was daylight now.  Later in the day, news filtered through that a competitor had been mugged near Yiewsley during the early hours of the morning.  Fortunately he was OK although unable to continue in the race.  It’s a shame that there are idiots out there that add danger to events like these.  The race is difficult enough without having to worry about the possibility of being attacked.

It took me a little over 8 ½ hours to complete this leg.  I arrived at checkpoint 3 at 8:56am having completed 82.25 miles (132km) plus a few bonus miles in just under 23 hours.

I wasn’t the last to arrive at the checkpoint but as it turned out, everyone whom I had passed had either already dropped out or would drop out at the checkpoint.  As I arrived, Roz was just leaving.  I remember talking to another runner who had dropped out overnight.  I think he said he had caught a taxi to the checkpoint to wait for his mate who was also planning to drop out when he arrived.

It was becoming a race of survival.  I don’t know why.  The race is reasonably flat.  The weather wasn’t too bad – not too hot and not too cold, and only a little bit of rain overnight.  I’ve raced in conditions a lot worse and felt much better.  I mean, in 23 hours I had only covered 82 miles (officially) plus a few bonus miles.

Checkpoint 3 to Checkpoint 4 – Yiewsley to Berkhamsted

23.6 miles – total distance 105.85 miles – cut off time 32 ½ hours

Only 23 miles to the nest checkpoint and 9 ½ hours until the cut off time. It will get easier now.  That is what I was thinking as I left the Yiewley checkpoint.  I was tired but I had collected my food for the next leg of the journey, it was a nice day and it was time to start making up some ground.

I had decided that I would record a video diary of the race and post a short selfie interview on facebook and twitter every 24 hours, so I recorded that shortly after leaving the checkpoint and tried to enjoy the morning.

It wasn’t long before I had Roz in my sights and I looked forward to catching up with her so that I could have someone to talk to for a while, and hopefully take my mind off my painful feet.  But shortly after I caught sight of her she rounded a corner a few hundred meters ahead of me and when I rounded the same corner she was nowhere to be seen.  I assumed that she had stopped for a toilet break in the bushes somewhere and would catch me soon but she never did.

Until now I had been listening to podcasts as I always do in the early stages of long races – I find that podcasts give me something to think about while walking – but it was now time for some high tempo music to try and get me going again.  Sometimes the music works and sometimes it doesn’t.  This time it didn’t.

I stopped and sat down for the first time other than at the checkpoints.  My feet were so sore that I just needed to lift them off the ground for a few moments.  I sat on the bench seat and took in my surroundings.  It was such a nice day, and I really wanted to feel good, but I didn’t.

Somewhere on the Thames Ring 250
The view while resting my feet – somewhere on the Thames Ring 250

I had a job to do though, and after a minute or two it was time to get moving again.  The rest of the afternoon continued with me walking for a while and sitting down for a minute or two every now and then.

I remember buying an iced lolly (ice block for non-UK readers) at a canal-side shop at one stage, and at another stage I walked with a guy and his son for maybe a mile as he walked his son home from school.  He told me that he had done the Race to the Stones 100km a few years ago and had heard about the Thames Ring but thought 250 miles was a little excessive – tell me about it!

In the end it took me 8 ¼ hours to walk the 23.6 miles between checkpoints 3 and 4. Ridiculous when you think that even at an easy training pace I would normally cover that distance in well under 6 hours, and usually under 5.

Once again I was the last person to arrive at the checkpoint.  I was 1 ¼ hours ahead of the cut off but everyone behind me had dropped out.  I was getting a little depressed to say the least.

Kate was there when I arrived and told me that she was also dropping out.  She said that losing 30 minutes the previous day, when we got lost, meant that she was unable to get enough sleep at a checkpoint to keep going.  I understood what she meant but my plan was to continue through to checkpoint 6 at Nether Heyford and then get some sleep.  Checkpoint 6 was the only indoor checkpoint and would give me an opportunity to recharge some of the USB charging sticks that I had been using to keep my Garmin and phone charged for the last day and a half – but Nether Heyford was still 50 miles away.

Checkpoint 4 to Checkpoint 5 – Berkhamsted to Milton Keynes

24.35 miles – total distance 130.2 miles – cut off time 42 hours

It was only 5:30 in the afternoon but I knew that it would be dark for a few hours before I got to the next checkpoint so I packed my head torch plus some a hat and two bottles of Coke plus enough food for the next 8+ hours.

I had been trying to limit the amount of sugar I was consuming but I was beginning to feel nauseas and I don’t think I consumed anything more than the occasional bite for the next few hours.  I had lost my appetite and although I knew I needed to eat, I was struggling to do so.

Shortly after leaving checkpoint 4 Peter Tiffin, whom I had passed at the checkpoint, caught up with me.  I remember walking with him for a little while and think I remember him telling me that he had had a beer at the last checkpoint.  He suggested that we work together through the night and whilst I agreed, it wasn’t long before I was struggling to keep up, and soon he had broken into a jog and I was on my own again.

In writing this race report I realise that I don’t have any recollection of the next 20 miles other than a couple things:

I remember passing Tring which is the 100 mile checkpoint in the GUCR and the place I dropped out of this year’s race.  I was tempted to stop for a short rest as some sort of memorial to my Grand Union Canal Race attempt, but forced myself to keep going.

My next memory is after it got dark and I heard someone call my name.  I knew I was near Leighton Buzzard and recognised the voice as my friend Rachel, from work, who lives in the area.  She had parked the car a few hundred meters up the canal path and walked down to find me.

Thames Ring 250

After leaving Rachel someone else told me that the Tesco supermarket was just a mile away and was still open – but the last thing I wanted was food.

And shortly after passing the supermarket I found myself lying on the ground.  I was absolutely exhausted and needed sleep.  The problem was that I was beginning to think that I wouldn’t make it to the next checkpoint before the 3am cut off and didn’t think I could afford to sleep.  But I couldn’t get up so I set the alarm on my phone for 5 minutes time, and a second alarm for 8 minutes and fell asleep.

I didn’t feel any better when I woke up but I knew I had to keep moving forward.  I wasn’t yet hallucinating but strangely it looked like I was going up hill the whole time.  I could tell I wasn’t because I was beside the canal and the water was flat, but the ground looked like it was going up hill.

I had also been struggling with the strange sensation that every time I walked past a canal boat, it felt like it lurched away from its mooring.  I had experienced this sensation during the Grand Union Canal Race both this year and last, and it was making my head spin.  It got to the stage that whenever I walked past a canal boat I had to look in the opposite direction.

I also remember crossing bridge 107 (all the bridges on the Grand Union Canal are numbered) which was exactly half way (125 miles) into the race and finding a runner sitting on the far side of the bridge.  I stopped and asked if he was OK.  He had decided to drop out and I tried to convince him to walk with me but he had had enough.  He thought it was 12km to the next checkpoint (he was European, and possibly having trouble converting miles in to Kilometres this far in to the race) and he said we didn’t have time to get there before the cut off time.  I tried to explained that it was only 5 ½ miles, so 9km at the most.  He wasn’t budging though and said he had called Lindley and someone would be collecting him soon.

My next memory is of counting down the bridge numbers from about 96 to 90C which was where the next checkpoint was.  90C means that when they numbered the bridges there was a 90 and a 91 and since then they have built 90A, B and C.  At least I knew that 90C would probably be shortly after bridge 91 but the bridges were miles apart, or so it seemed, and either my recognition of the numbers on the bridges wasn’t too good, or the bridge numbering people can’t count – as I am certain that there were two bridge 93’s and two bridge 92’s!

Eventually I arrived at checkpoint 5 under bridge 90C.  Dick Kearn (legendary GUCR run director) and one or two other volunteers were there to greet me.  My tracker had stopped working so I don’t know exactly what time it was but I think it was somewhere around 2:30am – about 30 minutes before the cut off.  Meaning that the last 24.35 miles had taken a staggering 9+ hours!

Dick advised that Peter (Tiffin) was sleeping and everyone else was at least an hour ahead of me.  Thanks Dick.  You really know how to make a guy feel good 🙂

I was completely exhausted and really needed some sleep but there wasn’t time.  I had to be out of the checkpoint before the 3am cut off or I would be disqualified.

I ate a bacon sandwich and sorted out some food for the next leg of the journey.  I hadn’t eaten a lot during the last 9 hours though, but as I had 12 hours to get to the next checkpoint I thought I had better take plenty of food with me.  I also tried to eat some porridge but couldn’t swallow it.

Peter woke up and left the checkpoint and a few minutes later I followed.  As it turned out, Peter would be the only runner that I caught during the race who actually went on to finish.

Checkpoint 5 to DNF – Milton Keynes to Milton Keynes

Another mile or two (perhaps)

I spent as much time as I could at the checkpoint.  I was exhausted. My feet were painful, and I had lost the motivation to continue.  But with just a few minutes until cut off I hobbled out of the checkpoint and maybe 100 to 200 meters around the corner, and out of sight of the volunteers.

I was feeling extremely cold and decided to stop and put my wet weather over-trousers on.  By the time I had done this my legs had tightened up I could barely put one foot in front of the other.  A short while later I saw a picnic table under a tree and decided that would make the perfect bed.  I set two alarms on my phone for 15 and 20 minutes time, and fell asleep.

I woke up before my alarm went off and tried to walk some more but my feet were killing me, my stride length was about 6 inches, and my race was over.

I was under a bridge and decided to call it a day.  I made one last call to Lindley and told him that I was at bridge 84 (a bit of a surprise given that I couldn’t remember passing any bridges since the last checkpoint) and could he send someone to collect me.  I said I would wrap myself in my space blanket and sleep beside the road so there was no rush.

The next thing I knew, it was daylight and Dick had arrived to collect me.  I have no idea what time it was – probably some time between 4:15 which was when I rang Lindley and maybe 6am.

Checkpoint 6 – Nether Heyford – 156.2 miles

Dick took me to checkpoint 6 so that I could get some sleep and I messaged Ruth to say I had dropped out and would call her after I woke up.  The checkpoint wasn’t exactly the MASH medical hospital I expected but there were runners sleeping, runners trying to sort out their food for the next leg of the race, and Maxine busy fixing runners’ feet.

Apparently the last 6 or 7 miles was really rough going and caused serious damage to runners’ feet – as if the previous 150 miles wasn’t bad enough.

After waking I contacted Ruth who said she would cancel her afternoon meeting and come and collect me around 2 or 3pm.  I told her that there was no rush as the checkpoint was open until 3pm and I was going to get some more sleep – which I did.

In total I had two sleeps of about 5 hours and the rest of the time I just sat in a daze watching runners coming and going.  I remember speaking to a few runners and hearing how hard it was, and being thankful that my race was over.  No regrets – Yet.

Peter Tiffin arrived around midday.  He had made good time on the last leg and had plenty of time to get another sleep.  I think a couple other runners may have arrived after him, but by about 2 or 2:30 everyone was back out on to the next stage of the race and it was time for the volunteers to close the checkpoint and get moving themselves.

Ruth arrived shortly after they left and took me home – the second time she has had to rescue me from the middle of nowhere this year.

Post Race

Even now, a week after my DNF, I don’t have any regrets about dropping out.  I am annoyed that I got lost on day 1 and wonder whether the two bonus miles cost me my race.  Getting lost took its toll on me both physically and mentally, and whilst the extra 2 miles only took 30 minutes on day 1, by the time I got to the Milton Keynes checkpoint, 2 miles was taking me closer to an hour.  If I had arrived at checkpoint 5 with an hour up my sleeve, I would have had time for a 30 to 45 minute sleep, and if I had done that, then perhaps I would have been able to get through to checkpoint 6 at a similar time to Peter, have had a sleep, and gone on to finish the race.

But What If’s are not what the Thames Ring 250 is all about.  I was one of 28 competitors who started the race on Wednesday and didn’t finish.  Of the 52 starters, only 24 (46%) finished.

Although I don’t regret the DNF, pulling out of a multi-day race is very different to dropping out of a 10km or a marathon.  When you drop out of a shorter race, there might be an hour or so before everyone finishes, but after dropping out of the Thames Ring 250 on Friday morning, I spent the next two days stuck to my phone watching the live tracking of the athletes and wondering about what might have been.  A little depressing to say the least.

As for my feet; other than a blister on the outside of each small toe, they actually looked OK.  But a week later I am still struggling with pain under the left foot.  The padding under the ball of my foot is swollen and the arch is a little tender.  I was planning on two weeks rest after the race, and will reassess the situation after my break.

Thames Ring 250
My left foot had been hurting all race

Thames Ring 250
But it didn’t look as bad as it felt

Would I do it again?

I don’t know.  The Thames Ring is only held every two years so I have plenty of time to decide.  The part of the race I was most looking forward to was the Oxford Canal.  I had already walked the Thames Path from Richmond through to Oxford (during the Thames Path 100 in 2015), and the Grand Union Canal two and a half times, but I hadn’t yet done the Oxford Canal.

I also think that perhaps my time competing against runners is over and I need to get back to doing some proper race-walking events.  My next race is the 6 jours de France at the end of August.  This is the world’s longest certified walking race – 6 days around a 1km circuit – and my goal is to beat the New Zealand and Commonwealth record that I narrowly missed last year, and hopefully complete 700km which was my goal last year.

After that, I don’t currently have any plans.

May 2017 Training Summary

I only went out for nine walks during May – at an average of 34.25 miles (55km) each!

May was all about two separate events – the M25 circumnavigation on the first weekend of the month, and the Grand Union Canal Race (GUCR) on the last weekend.  In between, I rested for a week and then just did a few short, easy walks.

The M25 walk was definitely the highlight of the month.  I set the fastest known time (FKT) for circumnavigating the M25 motorway on foot, and also managed to complete the 158 mile (254km) walk without sitting down from the time I started until I finished 44 hours later – the greatest distance and time that I have walked without sitting down.  And I raised a total of £1,880 for Limbless Association.

The GUCR didn’t go to plan however, and resulted in a DNF at 100 miles.  I have discussed this in detail in my race report so won’t go into the details again here.

Total mileage for May was 498km (308 miles).  Year to date: 1,960km (1,218 miles).

Looking forward to June:

TR250 route mapThere is only one thing to focus on during June, and that is the Thames Ring 250 which begins on the 28th June.  This is a 250 mile (400km) trail race which follows the popular canal boat route from Oxfordshire down the River Thames towards London, and then up the Grand Union Canal (in the reverse direction to the GUCR) to Northampton, before returning to Oxfordshire via the Oxford Canal.

It sounds reasonably easy.  A flat’ish course, which is my preference – I’m not a fan of hills – and 100 hours to complete the race.

The race is only held every second year and this year will be the fifth running of the event.  To date 111 athletes have attempted the race and only 54 have finished – that is a 48% success rate.  Worse than that, only 49 of them completed the race on their first attempt – a 44% success rate.  And in total, the 111 athletes have 138 starts between them for 61 finishes – a 44% success rate.

So it would appear that the race isn’t going to be as easy as a straight forward, flat 250 mile race.

When I first considered doing the race I thought a time of around 72 hours might be achievable – that’s 83 miles per day.  But given that only 5 runners have finished in less than 72 hours in the history of the event, I suspect that this is unrealistic.

It’s going to be a great event.  I can’t wait to get started!  And to find out what will happen during those 250  miles.

P&H Sea Scouts Walkathon

The weekend before the Thames Ring I am organising a walkathon to help the local Petersham and Ham Sea Scouts raise money for their new clubrooms.  Established in 1908, P&H Sea Scouts are the oldest continuously run scout group in the world and their current club rooms are almost as old 🙂

About 100 Beavers, Cubs, Scouts, and Explorers, aged 6 to 18 will walk laps of the local common for three hours (two hours for the Beavers) as a sponsored walk.

Thanks to the support of Fitbit I have organised two prizes of Fitbit Charge HR’s for the scouts – one for the person who raises the most sponsorship, and one as a spot prize for one of the participants.

During the last month I have been speaking at their club nights to try and inspire them.  Some of them have been inspired by the idea of winning a Fitbit, some by my stories of long walks.  It has been a fun exercise so far, and I’m looking forward to seeing how they go on Saturday 24th June.

 

May 2017 map
Only nine walks in May, but I covered a reasonable amount of ground!

 

GUCR DNF

GUCR race numberWas it the fact that the GUCR was my third event of 100 miles or further in six weekends, an experiment gone wrong, a sore throat, or something else that resulted in the 2017 Grand Union Canal Race being my first ever ultramarathon distance DNF?

The 2017 edition of the Grand Union Canal Race was to be my third consecutive GUCR, and also my third walk of 100 miles or further (GUCR is 145 miles in length) in six weekends (possible reason number 1 for the DNF), but despite that I was excited by the prospect of spending the first day and half of the bank holiday weekend on the towpaths beside canal that wanders its way from Birmingham to London.  There is something special about this race.  It is like no other.  I’m not sure if it is the competitors, the race organisation (which is outstanding), the amused/amazed comments from pedestrians when they find out what we are doing, or what, but this has to be the best race I have ever done.  And it is the first 100+ mile race that I have started three times.

The day before the day before the DNF

For the third consecutive year, I had one-way train ticket from London heading for Birmingham and the start of the race.  As with the last two years I traveled up to Birmingham on the Friday afternoon, checked in to my hotel, and then walked the short distance to race registration at the Travelodge in Broad Street.  This year the race organisers were late arriving to registration, giving competitors plenty of time to catch up with each other.  It was a great opportunity to see people that I hadn’t seen since last year’s race, meet some new friends, and share stories about various races and adventures.

The team of organisers eventually arrived, having been caught in Friday afternoon Birmingham traffic, and once registration was completed I moved to O’Neils bar next door where the GUCR runners traditionally have their last proper sit-down meal before the race.  I found myself sharing a table with three Thames Ring 250 (and GUCR) veterans and, as the TR250 is my next race, I took the opportunity to ask as many questions as I could.  The TR250 is a 250 mile (400km) race that takes in the River Thames, a large portion of the Grand Union Canal, but in the opposite direction to what we would be racing this weekend, and also the Oxford Canal.  Whilst I have walked further than 250 miles (when I did the 6 day race in France last year), this is likely to be my biggest challenge to date due to the self-supported nature of the race with checkpoints (and support) only available every 25 miles.  It was fascinating to hear their stories, and also of other races they had done, and I could have kept talking to them all night – but with an early start scheduled for the next day I headed back to the hotel straight after dinner, sorted out my kit for the race, and was in bed around 10pm.

The day before the DNF

I was expecting to get a good 6 to 6 ½ hours sleep but at 2:30am I woke up with a pounding headache and sore throat (possible reason number 2 for the DNF) and couldn’t get back to sleep.  Eventually I got up, had a shower and an earlier than planned breakfast – porridge, bananas (x2), and a couple croissants – and shortly after 5:30am I left my hotel room, just as my neighbours were staggering in to theirs, and walked down to the race start in Gas Street.

In 2015 I treated the GUCR as a survival test.  At that time it was my longest ever walk, and was just three weeks after the Thames Path 100 mile race, so I started conservatively, passed the 100 mile checkpoint in 26 hours and then struggled through the next 45 miles in 17 hours, finishing just after 1am on the Monday morning.

In 2016 I also started conservatively, after only a two week recovery from the Continental Centurions Race where I had broken the NZ records for 100 miles and 24 hours, but went through 100 miles in under 24 hours and finished 6 ½ hours faster than the previous year.  I walked the full 145 miles without sitting down between the start and the finish, and spent less than one minute in most of the nine checkpoints along the route.  It was one of my best races to date, although I still struggled on the Sunday, taking over 12 ½ hours for the last 45 miles.

This year, my intention was to walk a little faster/harder, but to also have a two minute lie down at each of the checkpoints.  The idea being that I would lie down with my feet elevated to give my legs a short rest and, that by doing this, I would have a better last 45 miles on day 2 than I had had the previous two years.  With the benefit of hindsight, this experiment may be reason number 3 for my DNF.

At exactly 6am after a few short words from the legendary Dick Kearn (one time GUCR winner, 20+ time race director, and now a member of the organising committee) we were on our way, with me positioned about ¾’s the way back in the field rather than at the very back as usual.

GUCR race start
My view of the race start
GUCR checkpoint 1
Checkpoint 1

I felt OK through the first 10 miles and upon arriving at the first checkpoint I found a quiet spot and lay down for two minutes with my feet resting on my drop bags.

When I re-joined the race though I found I had lost momentum and was immediately about 20 seconds per kilometer slower than I was before checkpoint 1.

The second checkpoint was at 22 miles but two miles beforehand I suddenly went from feeling OK to feeling like I expected to feel at 120 miles, not 20.  I felt exhausted and started looking forward to my next lie down.  My Garmin splits show that I didn’t actually slow down, but the last 2 miles through to the checkpoint felt like a long slog and not the easy walk that it should have felt like this early in the race.  I had another lie down at the checkpoint, grabbed some fruit from the aid station table, as well as my own plastic bag containing the food I was planning on eating during the next 14 miles through to checkpoint 3 and headed off along the canal.

GUCR checkpoint 2
A quick two minute lie down at CP2

When I arrived at checkpoint 3 I was greeted with a friendly “we hate you” from one of the runners who was surprised to find that ‘the walker’ had caught him earlier than expected.  I commented that I thought I was walking faster than last year (I couldn’t remember my split times from last year but on checking post race, it appears that I was only about 3 or 4 minutes ahead of last year’s schedule) and found a spot to have my two minute lie down.

When I got up again, most of the runners who were at the checkpoint when I arrived were still there.  It wasn’t just me who was having a hard day.

I had a quick drink of coke (I wasn’t intending to have coke so early but wasn’t feeling great), grabbed my food for the next 17 miles through to CP4, and headed off again.

It was shortly after this that I caught a female runner whom I won’t name as I don’t want to embarrass her.  I didn’t know her too well but we chatted for a bit and she said that as soon as she had finished eating she was going to stop for a wee.  Ultra-runners unashamedly talk about all sorts of things and toilet habits are no exception.  We talked about how a quick wee stop during a race was easier for a man than a women and after a while she drifted behind me and I continued on my way.  A few minutes later she came flying past me again and I asked her if she had had her wee stop.  She replied that she had and I said “well done” – probably not the sort of thing you would normally say to a grown women after she has been to the toilet 🙂

I arrived at checkpoint 4, 53 miles into the race, at 6:19pm, after 12 hours and 19 minutes of walking.  I thought this was a similar time to last year but I was feeling much worse than I did this time last year and lay down by the canal for my two minute rest/recovery.  Because I wouldn’t get to the next checkpoint (70 miles) before dark I put my headtorch into my Ultimate Direction running pack and also got my USB charger out to recharge my Garmin which these days only lasts about 13 hours without recharging.  As I left the checkpoint I downed some more coke and also asked one of the checkpoint volunteers to add some hot water to my Pot Noddles which would be the first course of my traditional GUCR Saturday night dinner.  This year was the third year I have had dinner while walking along the canal immediately after checkpoint 4.  I always start with Pot Noddles (600 calories) followed by Jelly (100 calories) and then another 500 mixed calories (crisps, biscuits, fruit, etc).

It takes a while to eat dinner on the move but it is much more efficient to do this at a slow walking pace than to eat while at the checkpoint.  Unlike previous years, I also received comments from people on two separate passing canal boats who both asked “is that Pot Noodles you’re eating?”.  The people on the canal boats are always so friendly, but this year they seemed to be more observant than normal.

After dinner I went to get my USB charger out of my UD running pack, but it wasn’t there!  In my haste to leave the checkpoint I had left it on the ground beside where I was sitting.  A few moments later my Garmin battery died.  There is a saying that if it isn’t on Strava then it didn’t happen, and regardless, I like to look back at my race splits, post race, to see what happened, so I opened the MapMyRun app on my phone and clicked the Start button – figuring that if I couldn’t record the race on my watch, then my phone was the next best option.  Fortunately when I arrived at the next checkpoint my USB charge was in my bag – thanks to an observant volunteer who must have picked it up for me.

I was really struggling but was looking forward to the short (1 ½ mile) road section that we reach at about 60 miles.  Last year I had a bad patch at around this stage but came right when we hit the road and I was hoping for the same this year.  Unfortunately it wasn’t to be.  I tried to pick up the pace but couldn’t, and by the time I arrived at Navigation Bridge, the 70 mile checkpoint, I was over 30 minutes behind last year’s pace.

Again, I had a 2 minute lie down with my feet elevated.  I was beginning to suspect that this experiment wasn’t working, but the two minute rests weren’t about making me feel good today, they were designed to make me feel better over the last 45 miles tomorrow, so I kept with the plan.

After my lie down I put some warmer clothes on as it was starting to get cold now that the sun had gone down, crossed the bridge and headed down the canal with a 600ml bottle of coke and a chocolate bar in my hands.

GUCR checkpoint 5
Preparing to leave checkpoint 5

The day of the DNF

I usually love walking at night and have enjoyed the night section of the GUCR, especially last year, but this wasn’t to be the case this year.  It was only 14 miles to checkpoint 6 but it was extremely slow going and I was starting to struggle with tiredness.  I had a caffeine tablet and waited for the effects of that to kick in, but nothing.  I just couldn’t get going.

I finally arrived at the 84 mile checkpoint at 3:18am and decided that I would have a short sleep – my first sleep in three GUCR attempts.  I slept for 20 to 25 minutes but didn’t feel any better.  In fact I was now freezing cold.  So cold that I accepted an offer of some soup.  I hate hot drinks and avoid them at all costs, but I needed something to get me going again.

GUCR leaving checkpoint 7
Leaving checkpoint 6 – dressed for winter

The GUCR rules state that you are not allowed to be stopped for more than 45 minutes at any one time, but it was 52 minutes after arriving at the checkpoint that I finally got going again, and I didn’t feel any better than when I had stopped.  I was now dressed for winter with five layers on top, and if I had had them in my drop bag I would also have been wearing long pants as well – I was that cold.

Fortunately I didn’t wear long pants because a couple hours later the sun was out, and reflecting off the water to make it feel like a 25+ degree day.  By the time I got through to 90 miles I had made the decision that I would drop out at the 100 mile checkpoint.  I was walking about 3 miles (5km) an hour, which meant that the last 45 miles would take about 15 hours unless something miraculous happened, and at best I wouldn’t get to the 100 mile checkpoint until 9am.  Add 15 hours to that and I was looking at a midnight finish.  With the Thames Ring 250 only 4 ½ weeks away I rationalised that I would be better off to DNF than spend another whole day walking and potentially jeopardise by recovery from the GUCR and my leadup to the TR250.

By the time I finally spoke to my wife, Ruth at around 8:30am I had slowed even further and was even more certain that I was making the right decision.  Ruth reluctantly agreed to come and collect me from the checkpoint at Tring, telling me that this was my only ‘get out of jail free’ card for this year.  I said I could catch the train home but she didn’t think it was fair on other passengers to have to put up with the smell of someone who had been walking for 27+ hours.  Thanks Ruth for coming to my rescue.

Monopoly Get Out Of Jail Free card
My only ‘Get Out Of Jail Free’ card for 2017

The DNF

I finally arrived at checkpoint 7 at 9:31am – 27 hours and 31 minutes for 100 miles.  Almost 4 hours slower than last year.

The volunteers at the checkpoint tried briefly to talk me in to remaining in the race, or at least having a short sleep before making a decision to withdraw, but I told them that Ruth was on her way to collect me, and that I was happy with my decision to DNF.

I lay in the sun with my feet elevated one last time while I waited for Ruth to arrive, and reflected on my race.  I didn’t regret it for a moment.  Overall it had been another great adventure.  I hadn’t finished in London as planned, but I wasn’t regretting the DNF either.

I removed my shoes and socks and had absolutely no sign of blisters – thanks in no small part to the combination of 2Toms Blister Shield and Injinji Socks that I use (see my blog post about blister prevention here).  In my last two long walks I had had a small blister on the inside of each heel, but they were both fine this time.

My legs felt fine too.  I still had a bit of a sore throat, but I think it was just one of those days/weekends.  Better to happen now than in either of my next two races – the Thames Ring 250 at the end of June or the 6 jours de France (6 day race) in August.

Ultra-distance events are much more of a mental exercise than they are physical and I think I was missing the required mindset this weekend.

Ultramarathon - 90% mental, 10% in your head

Fitbit steps

One of the benefits of wearing a Fitbit is that it records your cadence – number of steps per minute, or in the case of the graphs below, number of steps per five minutes.

Fitbit steps day 1

Fitbit steps day 2

You can see my gradual demise as my cadence slowly reduced from 690 steps every five minutes down to 450 (137 steps per minute down to 90).

Strava graphs

The graphs below show my decreasing speed during the race – from 7:30/km pace to 13 minute/km pace.

Strava1

Strava2

Strava3

GUCR 2018

The Grand Union Canal Race is still my favourite race of all the races I have participated in.  Entry is by ballot, as it is always over-subscribed, and I will definitely be entering again next year.  If I miss out on the ballot I’ll be involved in some way – probably at that 100 mile checkpoint which was the end of my GUCR this year.

My previous GUCR’s

My first GUCR – 2015

My second GUCR – 2016 – ironically, I sub-titled this one ‘The mind is stronger than the body’. The opposite to this year 🙂