Privas 6 day race 2017 – 6 jours de France

Two weeks ago tonight I was in my hotel room in Privas, France looking forward to the start of my second 6 day race – the 2017 edition of 6 jours de France, the longest race-walking event in the world that has official race-walking judges.

Last year I walked 614km and finished third.  I learnt a lot about myself and how much the body can cope with if your mind is strong enough.  I also learned a lot about how to race multi-day events, and I was confident that this year I would walk at least 8km further than in 2016 – which would be enough to beat Gerald Manderson’s 18 year old New Zealand record.

In fact I was so confident that I fully expected to win the race and perhaps walk as far as 700km.

But it wasn’t to be.

I knew the race would be hard.  I struggled with many highs and even more lows during last year’s race, but as soon as I finished the race last year I started planning and looking forward to my second attempt at a six day race.

It has taken me two weeks to write this report.  Two weeks to write about what happened during the 144 hours between when the race started at 4pm on Sunday 20th August and when it finished at 4pm the following Saturday.

I keep finding excuses not to write this report.  Excuses to avoid thinking about everything that went wrong.  I’ve done many races or long walks where I have commented afterwards that “that race was the hardest race I have ever done”, but those races have normally been relatively shorter events, and whilst I might have suffered mentally during those events, they had nothing on what I experienced during this year’s edition of the 6 jours de France.

The 48 hours before the race:

Privas is in South East France, down towards Lyon.  This year I traveled there by train along with the other two walkers from England, Kathy Crilley and Suzanne Beardsmore, as well as Suzanne’s son, Jamie.  We met at Kings Cross St Pancras railway station on Friday morning and eight hours later we arrived at Valence TGV railway station where we were met by my father, Peter, and his partner Diane, who were taking a break from their European holiday to act as my support crew for the week.  Little did they know what they were letting themselves in for 🙂

On Saturday we all headed down to the stadium, which would be our home for the next week, pitched our tents and positioned the motorhome (that Dad had rented for the week) amongst the other motorhomes at the opposite end of the course.

As with last year I spent the Saturday night back at the hotel, but unlike last year I had a terrible nights sleep.  It was around 3am when I finally drifted off and I woke up around 5 hours later.  After Breakfast I headed down to the track, Kathy and Suzanne were already down there, to register for the race and make last minute preparations.

I then walked up to McDonalds, about 1km away, for lunch with Dad and Diane.  I figure that if Chicken McNuggets are OK for Usain Bolt as a pre-race meal, then they are OK for me too.

The rest of the afternoon was spent resting and waiting for the 4pm race start.

Day 1 – 4pm Sunday to 4pm Monday:

6 jours de France start
32 walkers and 106 runners just before race start.
6 jours de France first lap
Lap 1

The first 18 hours of the race actually went OK.  I started slowly but steadily walking almost exactly 8 minutes and 20 seconds per 1,020 meter lap for the first 4 hours, then walked a few slower laps while I ate dinner.

The interesting thing was that in the week leading up to the race my right hamstring had been extremely tight, and I remember commenting to Diane during lunch that if today was a training day I would have had a rest because the hamstring was so sore.  But 4 hours into the race, and my hamstring hadn’t bothered me at all, and neither the hamstring or the other minor niggly injuries that had been bothering me caused any problems at any stage in the race.

After 8 hours I took the lead when the four walkers ahead of me all decided to take breaks, and I walked steadily though until 12 hours when my pace dropped below 10 minutes per lap for the first time.  At that stage I sat down for the first time, and emptied some small stones and grit from my shoes, and also switched my nutrition from low sugar foods to processed sugar (coke and chocolate).

The sun came up around 7am and within minutes we knew we were going to be in for a hot day.  I don’t seem to cope well in the heat and by mid-morning I was really struggling.

When 4pm arrived (24 hours) I had covered 147km – 82km in the first 12 hours but only 65km in the second 12.  I hadn’t yet taken a break, other than to sit down for a few minutes two or three times, and whilst I knew I was slowing down, my intention was to keep going until I had a decent lead that would allow me to have a sleep and maintain the lead.  At this stage I was still ‘racing’ and last year’s winner, Christophe Biet hadn’t slept yet either.

Day 2 – 4pm Monday to 4pm Tuesday:

I finally decided to sit down for a decent rest at around 8pm, 28 hours, when I had dinner.  The heat had really taken its toll on me and I remember commenting that if today was a work day, I would be ringing in sick and going back to bed.

Dad got an ice pack from the freezer and we tried taping that to my body to cool me down, but without success.  I was feeling the effects of the hot day.

After an hour or so I decided I needed to lie down for my first sleep of the race, but as I was still ‘racing’ and still leading the race (but only just – Christophe was only 1 lap behind me), I decided 90 minutes was all I could afford.

When I woke up Christophe was ten laps ahead of me and I was in second place.  When Christophe finally decided to sleep I recovered the lead and opened up a gap of 8 or 9 laps myself before he woke up.

I was struggling though, and was extremely tired.  90 minutes sleep hadn’t been enough and at 6am (38 hours) I was ready to through my toys out of the cot.  I was taking about 16 minutes to walk each lap and was in a very unhappy place.

I slept for two hours and then visited the medical tent for the first time.  My feet were a mess, or at least they were in my mind.  Looking at the photos I took while waiting in the medical tent, I had two big blisters and a couple smaller ones, but given the surface we were walking on, they weren’t actually too bad.

I realise now that it was at this stage, maybe earlier, that my mind gave up on me.  Long distance race-walking is more mental than physical, and I didn’t have the required mindset to get through this race.  Not this year.  But I didn’t know that yet and after leaving the medical tent I tried to get back into it.  I was in 5th place now, and managed to get back to walking at a pace of around 11 minutes per lap.

On Monday night I had posted on facebook that the heat was killing me and several people made suggestions about coping with the heat.  I decided to wear a buff around my neck and another one on my head, and keep them wet in an attempt to keep my temperature down.  This process worked well.  At the end of each lap I would grab a cup of water at the food tent, take a mouthful and then hold the plastic cup upside down on my head to allow the water to slowly filter into the buff, which meant it then stayed wet for most of the next lap.  Sometimes I would stop at the motorhome where Dad and Diane had a bucket of cold water, and I would dip both buffs in the bucket and then put them back on.  Soaking wet, the water would then run down my back, and this meant that for the majority of the day my head, neck and back were wet and cool.

Mentally, I had a much better day in the heat than I had the previous day, but looking at the detailed stats that Dad maintained, I only walked 82km on day 2.  (229km at 48 hours).  Not particularly great (although only 11km down on last year).

Day 3 – 4pm Tuesday to 4pm Wednesday:

Once I reached 250km (at 11:30pm) I decided to have another 90 minute sleep.  I was still thinking reasonably clearly and decided that I needed to avoid the hottest part of the day, so the plan was to have a sleep now and then walk until lunchtime when I would take a much longer break, to avoid the afternoon heat.

So that’s what I did.  After waking up, I walked another 33km (in 10 ½ hours) before stopping for lunch.  I then had a four hour sleep in the shade at the top of the grandstand, although the sleep was broken by the need to visit the toilet twice.  I had drunk too much water to sleep without emptying my bladder.

My day 3 mileage was only 54km!  Total mileage in the first 72 hours – 283km.

Day 4 – 4pm Wednesday to 4pm Thursday:

After waking I had a shower and then hobbled around to visit my friends in the medical tent – I thought I could possibly walk faster if I had my feet re-taped – and then hobbled another few hundred meters around to the motorhome for dinner.  It was like I was on holiday.  A nice and relaxed afternoon.  Lunch, a sleep, dinner.

I was actually in a race though, so after dinner I decided to try and put in a bit of an effort.  I walked a few laps at an easy pace just to get my legs moving again, and then slowly increased the pace before putting on some high-tempo music and turning it up as loud as my phone would allow.

Before long I was walking 10 minute laps and feeling on top of the world.  10 minutes per kilometre isn’t fast, but compared with where I had been, I was ecstatic!

I started thinking that I could turn this race around and start working my way back up the field.  I had slipped down to 8th place by this stage.

But the good patch only lasted an hour or so, and before long I was back to walking 17 and 18 minute laps.

I walked through to 6am when I decided I needed another short sleep so that I could repeat yesterday and walk through until early afternoon before my longer sleep.

I only slept an hour and when I woke up it was trying to rain.  It didn’t, but the cloud cover remained throughout the morning which was a nice change from the last few days.  I wasn’t looking forward to having to keep my head wet all day again.

At 10am I recorded this video and in the video I say I have ‘accepted’ my situation.  I wasn’t mentally strong enough to walk fast, but I wasn’t going to give up either.

I walked through to 2pm when I had another 3 hour sleep at the top of the grand.

My day 4 mileage was 67km.  Total mileage in the first 96 hours of the race: 350km.

Day 5 – 4pm Thursday to 4pm Friday:

After my sleep I walked half a lap of the course around to the motorhome and sat down for dinner, and then walked another almost full lap of the course around to the massage tent where I had a full leg massage to get me ready to attack the night session.  The word ‘attack’ might be a bit of an over-statement.  It was more a case of getting ready to go through the motions for another 8 or more hours.

By the time I got going again it was around 7pm.  I walked for six hours but not very fast and decided to have another short sleep (90 minutes) at 1am.

I then walked another 3 ½ hours but every lap was getting slower and slower to the extent that I was now taking over 30 minutes per lap – less than 2 kilometres per hour!

At 6am I told Dad that I was going to sleep again, and “don’t wake me”.  My intention was to sleep for up to five hours, maybe even longer, but at 9am I woke up and believe it or not, it was like the previous four days hadn’t happened.  Mentally I felt great!

It no longer mattered how fast I was able to walk.  I was now down to 15th place (of 32) but I wasn’t interested in the race any more.  It was about getting through to the finish in 30 hours time, and I felt like I could do that.

I felt so good that for the first time in days I ate breakfast (porridge) while walking.  No sitting down feeling sorry for myself.

Looking at Dad’s stats, it looks like I spent the majority of the next 7 hours walking laps of between 10 and 12 minutes each.  The fastest I had walked for days.

I walked through lunch, my second meal in a row where I walked and ate, and decided to keep walking until I got to 400km – which happened just before 4pm.

Day 5 mileage: 50km, with 25km in the last 5 hours! Total mileage so far: 400km

The last day – Friday 4pm to Saturday 4pm:

I felt so good that I decided a 90 minute sleep at the top of the grandstand was all I needed, and as soon as I woke up I was on my way again.  I set myself a goal of walking another 100km in the 22 hours I had left.  I figured that 500km would be a lot more respectable than 4xx kilometres.

Last year when I reached 500km I got to walk a lap of the track carrying the New Zealand flag after breaking the NZ record.  This year, all I wanted to do was get to 500km and get a photo of myself holding the 500km sign.

The previous few days, after my afternoon sleep I had delayed starting walking again by sitting down for dinner, visiting the medical tent, etc, but tonight I was on a mission.  I ate tea while walking, and got down to the job of walking 5km per hour through the night, figuring that if I could maintain that pace I would have time for a sleep if I needed it in the morning, or have a small buffer if the heat got to me during the final day of the race.

I walked 30km during the next six hours during which time the weather started to change.  We were ‘entertained’ by an amazing thunder and lightning storm.  I have never heard such loud thunder, and I was really enjoying the night.

And then just after midnight the heavens opened.  We had a huge downpour.  It reminded me of the downpour we had on the Tuesday morning last year, but the difference this year was that I wanted to make the most of it and keep walking.  I changed into my wet weather gear but was already drenched, and started walking again.  I hadn’t even completed a full lap before the rain stopped.  I was disappointed.  I was looking forward to walking in the rain.

I kept walking, holding a steady pace of between 10 and 11 minutes per lap and by around 4am I was walking between 8 and 8 ½ minutes a lap!  As fast, or even faster than I had walked during the first four hours back on Sunday afternoon.

With 12 hours to go I had 52km to go to reach 500km.  I had walked 48km in the last 10 hours.  500km was definitely a possibility.  Maybe even 515km – less than 100km short of last year.

This was one of the few ‘highs’ I had during the race and like the other highs, it didn’t last too long.  At some stage, I can’t remember exactly when, I decided I needed a 15 minute sleep.  I was feeling tired and thought a short break would help.  Last year, every time I had a break my feet were so sore that it took me 45 minutes to get back into my rhythm, but this year my feet were feeling much less painful so I figured a 15 minute sleep would be OK and wouldn’t significantly impact on my progress.

At 10am I had 29km to go (to get to 500km) and 6 hours left.  It was getting hot again, and I needed fast energy.  I decided to switch to 100% Coke to get me through to the finish.  100 to 150 mls every second lap (every 25 minutes).  It took me a while to convince Dad and Diane that Coke was the best fuel to get me to the finish, but I figured that liquid calories would be best.  I’m not sure if I was right or not, but my thinking was that if I ate solid food, my metabolism would have to break the food down before I could utilise the energy, whereas if I just consumed Coke, it would turn into energy immediately.  Anyway, we agreed on the Coke diet and I kept walking as fast as I could.

I was wearing my buffs and trying to keep my head, neck and back as cool as I could, but it was hot!  At the bottom of the grandstand there were some water taps and on at least two occasions during the afternoon I sat under them for about 30 seconds at a time, drenching myself completely.  I was struggling and was regularly doing the math to work out whether I would get to 500km.

With four hours to go I had 19km remaining.  With three hours to go I had 14km to go.  With two hours left, 9 ½ km.  It was going to be close.

I picked the pace up the best I could, and managed to do a few 10 minute laps – 6km and hour.

Last year I managed to ‘sprint’ the last 30 minutes, completing 3 laps in the last 18 or 19 minutes, but I didn’t want to have to do that this year.  I really wanted to get through to 500km with time to spare so I could get the photo I wanted with the 500km sign before the race finished.

With 57 minutes to go I only needed to complete four more laps.  I double checked the scoreboard and worked out that on completing 4 laps my total mileage would be 180 meters past the 500km mark.  I only needed to walk 14 minutes per lap.  I was averaging 11 minutes.  I was becoming confident that I would make it.

I checked again at the end of each of the next two laps.  I now had 31 minutes to walk two more laps.  I decided to ease the pace a little, although when I passed the motorhome Dad told me I was going too slow and to pick the pace up.  I guess it looked like I had slowed too much.  I told him to get Diane and meet me at the timing mats.

When I completed the next lap I stopped at the scoreboard again to make absolutely certain that I was on 499km.  Fortunately I was.  I had 18 minutes left.  Plenty of time.

And 143 hours and 54 minutes after starting the race I completed the next lap and passed the 500km mark.  I stopped for some photos with the 500km sign, and with Dad and Diane, and then convinced them to walk with me until the horn blew to signal the end of the race.

We managed to walk as far as the motorhome, 200 meters.  My distance for the 144 hours was 500.403km.

500km!!!

With Diane and Dad

Saturday afternoon:

Last year I finished on a high, went to the awards presentations, had dinner, and a great nights sleep.

This year I felt terrible.  After the race I had a shower and then went to the awards presentations but found it almost impossible to sit still.  I was feeling very hot and very sick.  Dad got the ice pack again but it didn’t seem to make much of a difference.  After the awards ceremony I was planning on attending the post race dinner but it was all I could do to get back to the motorhome where I lay down and put my feet in cold water (both to reduce swelling and try and cool down).

Diane cooked something for me to eat and I then went down to my tent where I slept soundly for the next 10 hours.

When I woke up the following morning I felt great, and was walking with almost no pain!

After breakfast we packed up and Dad and Diane dropped Kathy, Suzanne, Jamie and I back to Valence TGV for the trip home.  Kathy and Suzanne had both had good races, and had both exceeded their expectations for the race.  It was only me that wasn’t happy with my result, but believe it or not, within an hour of getting on the train we were already talking about our plans for next year’s race!

Post race analysis:

I think I slept a total of about 18 hours during the race, but I had many more hours off the track eating and resting.  Last year I had 14 hours sleep and a lot less time off the track.

My Fitbit shows that I walked 640,000 steps.  Last year I walked 765,000 steps.

My average 5km took 1.44 hours (86.4 minutes) including sleep.  Last year my average 5km to 1.17 hours (70.5 minutes).  So my average speed was 22.5% slower than last year.  Looking at it another way, it’s like aiming to walk a parkrun (5km) in 30 minutes and taking 36 ½ minutes to complete the walk.  If that happened, I would just put it down to a bad day and forget about it.  Unfortunately my ‘bad day’ lasted for almost a whole week.

Thanks:

Firstly, I want to thank my father and Diane.  Whilst I had a bad race, I am certain that it would have been much, much worse without their support during the race.

My wife, Ruth, is my biggest supporter.  If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be able to walk these ridiculous distances.  And whilst the rest of my family think I’m mad, they are also great support.  Thanks.

I was posting regularly on facebook and twitter and received plenty of support from many people via these social media channels.  I haven’t looked back to see who it was that suggested the wet buffs as a way of keeping cool, but to whomever it was, thanks.

Privas 6 day race - top 3 walkers
Christophe (3rd), Philippe (1st), and Patrick (2nd)

And the other athletes on the track.  Many of them offered their support when they saw me suffering.  I remember two occasions in particular.  One was when I stopped to take a photo of the three leaders (in the walking section) who were walking together at the time – I think it was Thursday morning – and one of them, Christophe I think, said “we feel sad for you”.  None of them spoke English so it was difficult to communicate, but I told them not to feel sad.  I was just having a bad race.  And the second occasion was on the last day (I think) when Sylvie (one of the runners) stopped me to say that her feet were sore.  I looked at her feet and burst out laughing.  Then she asked “how do you feel now?”.  I felt much better than I had a few minutes earlier.

Sylvie's feet
Sylvie’s feet

Lastly, I have been fortunate to be supported by some great companies.  Thanks to Fitbit, Beta Running (Injinji and Ultimate Direction), and also Strictly Banners.

In the end I finished in 13th place.  Not what I wanted, but I’m sure that the memories of what happened this year will drive me on to a much better result next year.

Privas 6 day race
I wasn’t happy for most of the race, but I can’t wait to go back.
Privas 6 day race
Walking through the night was my favourite part of the race – so peaceful.

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!