Thames Ring 2019 (TR250)

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.  I hated it. And I loved it.  And I can’t wait to go back.  I’m talking about the 2019 edition of the Thames Ring 250.  A 250 mile (400 km) race that starts in Streatley on the River Thames and wanders its way down the Thames to Richmond, up the Grand Union Canal to Braunston, and down the Oxford Canal to Oxford before a final section back along the Thames to the start/finish in Streatley.

Thames Ring 250

This was the sixth running of a race that has an historical finish rate of only 45%.  That is, only 9 of every 20 runners (and me as a walker) who have ever started the race have actually finished it.  In the previous five races (held every second year), 149 different athletes have started the race 191 times, and 77 of them have just 86 finishes between them.  For me, 1 attempt (in 2017) and 0 finishes.

Before the race:

I haven’t had a great year so far – eliminated after just 18 hours in Last One Standing Castle Ward in February, a DNF at 160 miles in the Belfast to Dublin Return ultra in March, and then a sub-par 24 hour race in Weert, Holland at the beginning of June – so I held off entering the Thames Ring 250 (also known as TR250) until the last possible moment.  I didn’t want to start the race if I couldn’t finish it, but at the same time, I didn’t want to miss out either.

Thames Ring 250 hoodie from 2017
Thames Ring 250 hoodie from 2017

Having DNF’d at 132 miles in 2017, this was the first race I have ever entered without 100% certainty (at time of entering) that I could finish, and my wife had told me “Don’t come home if you don’t finish”.  I had booked the time off work, and accommodation for the night before the race, months ago.  But was too scared to commit to entering the race.

But once entered, I couldn’t think about much else in the 2 weeks before the race.  I decided that I would treat it as an adventure with cut-off times rather than a race, and my first goal was going to get past 132 miles where I dropped out last time, and through to checkpoint 6 in Nether Heyford, as the speed required to avoid being timed-out at checkpoints was significantly less in the final 94 miles than in the first 156.  If I could make it to Nether Heyford, I was confident that I would be able to finish the race – and wear the race hoodie without having to deface it like I had to in 2017.

 

In 2017 I had travelled to the race start on the morning of the race but this year I decided that the extra sleep on race morning was worth the additional expense.  I travelled to Goring (the other side of the river from Streatley) via train after work on Tuesday and checked in to my accommodation, a B&B hosted by a lovely lady who cooked us (fellow athlete Ryan Isles was also staying there) a huge breakfast the following morning and took us down to the Morrell Rooms (the start/finish) in Streatley after breakfast.

Arriving at the start I met many friends from previous races.  There were only 41 runners entered in the race, but in most cases if I didn’t already know them from the 2017 race or various other ultramarathons, then I knew the names, or would come to know them over the coming days.  This is one of the most friendly events and I enjoyed talking to some of the other competitors as I prepared for the start.

The first three legs – Streatley to Yiewsley – 82 miles (the part where I felt great):

The race started at exactly 10am on Wednesday 26th June.  41 of us left the driveway outside the Morrell Rooms and turned left over the Goring Bridge.  I hung back at the start as I always do and found myself walking with Spenser Lane who in 2015 had completed the TR250 in the slowest ever time of 99 hours and 56 minutes, just 4 minutes inside the 100 hour time limit.

It was too early to ‘race’ and I enjoyed Spenser’s company for about 30 minutes before he decided that it was time to start running.  When Spenser started running, I also picked up my walking pace but stayed at the back of the field for an hour or so until I caught up with Rupert Coles who said he was OK but he didn’t appear to be having a good day.

Thames Ring 250 - with Spenser Lane
With Spenser Lane

By the time I arrived at checkpoint 1 in Hurley (27 miles in 6 hours and 9 minutes) I had passed a couple other runners but wasn’t really pushing the pace.  I was in and out of the Hurley checkpoint in just 10 minutes, and found myself walking with Vicky Yeomans.  The first thing I remember Vicky saying to me was that she had heard that there was a guy who was aiming to walk the whole 250 miles 😊  I told her that that was me.

Thames Ring 250 - checkpoint 1
Checkpoint 1

We walked together for about two hours before Vicky decided to start running and left me behind (for a while).  As much as I was enjoying walking and talking, I am just as happy walking alone and it wasn’t until the bridge coming in to Windsor that I caught Vicky again.  It was around 8:30pm and I was looking forward to a visit to McDonalds for dinner.  Vicky joined me at McDonalds but she wasn’t feeling good but I convinced her that we would be better moving slowly than not moving at all.

The further we walked, the worse Vicky said she felt and as it was getting dark I decided to stay with her through to checkpoint 2 in Chertsey.  It was still very early in the race and I didn’t feel the need to race yet.

We arrived at the Chertsey checkpoint 2 (55 miles) at 10 minutes before midnight (13 hours and 50 minutes into the race).  Once again, I didn’t want to hang around.  Ten minutes and I was on my way again, leaving Vicky with Maxine (medic extraordinaire).

Soon after leaving Chertsey I passed a group of three runners and then caught up with Mark Haynes, a runner and walker whom I often catch 50 to 60 miles into a race.  We walked together for a while and somehow managed to get lost without realising it.  A short while later, when we were about to approach the Walton Bridge those same three runners whom I had passed earlier were also approaching the bridge from a slightly different direction.  Not to worry.  It was early in the race and I was still feeling good.  And I was now on my home turf.

From Walton through to the next checkpoint at Yiewsley we were in the area where I train.  Also, the ground was dead flat and easily walkable.  I walked alone and don’t think I even saw any other runners after Walton, arriving at checkpoint 3 (82 miles) at 7:15am (21 hours 15 minutes), 1 hour and 40 minutes faster than 2017.

I was feeling great!  In fact, I don’t think I have ever felt this good 80 miles into a race before.

Day 2 – Yiewsley to Milton Keynes (struggling):

Summer arrived in the UK shortly after I left Yiewsley and over the next few hours the temperature got warmer and warmer, and my feeling of ‘great’ started to diminish.  From now on my recollection of events and timings is slightly reduced but I think I have things in order for this race report.

There was a riverside café somewhere around 95 miles perhaps and I remember standing in line behind Nicole Atkinson, an awesome lady whom I would spend a lot of time walking with over the coming days, and the guy behind me asked if I was a New Zealander.  I said I was and asked where in NZ he was from.  He was from Ngaruawahia and when I told him that my uncle used to own the petrol station in Ngaruawahia he told me that he used to work there and knew both my uncle and cousin – small world!

The service at the café didn’t appear to be too fast and I told Nicole that I didn’t need an ice cream that badly after all.  I’m fairly sure there was another runner in the queue too, and we decided to keep going, figuring that Nicole would catch up soon after.

Thames Ring 250 - 100 miles
The bridge that marked 100 miles – reached in 26 hours 15 minutes

I arrived at checkpoint 4 (106 miles) in Berkhamsted shortly before 2:30pm (28 hours 30 minutes), almost 3 hours ahead of my 2017 pace.  I was beginning to struggle, and for the last few miles I was looking forward to getting a bowl of hot chips from the pub that the checkpoint was next to, only to find that the pub wasn’t serving any food.  The problem with arriving at a pub in between lunchtime and dinner time – no food service.

I also had a few blisters so took my shoes and socks off so that Maxine could attend to my feet.  I’m fairly sure that I was sitting next to Ryan Isles, my house mate from Tuesday night, at this checkpoint and remember a few other runners in various states of well-being but can’t remember who was there with me.

As soon as my feet were fixed, I was my way again.  My aim was to get through to Milton Keynes no later than 10pm so that I could have my first sleep of the race.  In 2017 I had arrived at the Milton Keynes checkpoint with just 30 minutes before the checkpoint closed, and no time to sleep.  I only managed another 2 miles before my DNF.

I don’t remember too much about the walk through to Milton Keynes other than I think I walked alone the whole way and I remember stopping at the Leighton Buzzard Tesco supermarket for my first chocolate bar of the race and my second coke.  Unusually, I wasn’t interested in either Coke or chocolate and we were over 30 hours into the race.  Normally I’m hanging out for processed sugar within 12 hours.

It is a long drag from Leighton Buzzard through to Milton Keynes and I was struggling a little.  A friend from the US sent me a message to say I was in 10th place!! But I messaged him back to say that I didn’t want to know my place at this stage as I was still treating this as an adventure and not a race.

I arrived at the Milton Keynes checkpoint 5 (130 miles) at 10:30pm (36 hours 30 minutes), 30 minutes behind my plan, but 4 ½ hours ahead of cut-off, so plenty of time to sleep.

After a bacon sandwich I hobbled (it is surprising how after just a few minutes sitting down, you can’t walk properly) over to the tents that were available to sleep in.  I would like to say that I fell asleep immediately and slept for three hours, but after tossing and turning for about an hour I gave up on any idea of sleep and hobbled back over to the checkpoint for another bacon sandwich and to prepare for the next leg.

Day 3 – Milton Keynes to Fenny Compton (Hallucinations, I hate it, I love it)

I left Milton Keynes at about 12:30am Friday morning just as Nicole was arriving.  With no sleep I knew I was going to struggle, but there was no point in staying at the checkpoint if I couldn’t get to sleep.

In 2017 I had left this checkpoint completely exhausted and only lasted another couple miles before my DNF.  I wasn’t going to let that happen again and I walked north with purpose.  Other than getting slightly lost for a few minutes, the night section went well but come daylight it was a completely different story.

According to my facebook post at 6:30am I was really struggling:

Facebook post 44 hours in to Thames Ring 250
Facebook post 44 hours in to Thames Ring 250

Even now, a week later, I remember the two cars that popped up in front of me and prevented me continuing.  I’m not new to hallucinations and knew that what I was experiencing wasn’t real and was due to tiredness, but I confess that I was close to tears and was at my lowest point in the race at this stage.  I wasn’t at the stage of giving up, but I was wishing I wasn’t here.

The terrain was also extremely difficult to walk at a steady pace.  In fact, well over half of the whole course was what might be called technical single track where you had to watch where you were putting your feet.  I hated it so much that I loved it.  It is difficult to describe, but in the week since the race finished I have looked back on the whole experience with fondness, and honestly cannot wait to have another go in two year’s time.

Soon after my facebook post I came right again and a few hours later, at 10:30am (48 hours 30 minutes) I arrived at checkpoint 6 in Nether Heyford (156 miles).

For most of the athletes, checkpoint 6 is a highlight of the race.  It is the only indoor checkpoint which means you can recharge devices, use a proper bathroom, sleep in quiet, etc.  Maxine, medic extraordinaire was also there to tend to sore feet, etc.

I had a sponge wash in the bathroom and changed my clothes, and then had two hours sleep before Maxine cleaned up my feet again.  They weren’t actually that bad but while she was taping my left foot I noticed some swelling near the bottom of my left shin.  The swelling was localised, about the size of a matchbox, but didn’t hurt.  I asked Maxine if I should be concerned about it and what I should do.  I remember her reply as something along the lines of “stop what you did to cause it”.  Obviously that wasn’t an option!

Thames Ring 250 - checkpoint 6
Leaving checkpoint 6

I had arrived at Nether Heyford at 10:30am and it was now 2pm.  I remember hearing that everyone who was still in the race had either already left for the next stage or was currently in the room.  There was no one else behind us.  I looked around the room.  There were 10 of us in various stages of preparation for the next stage of the race, and 11 ahead of us.  21 of the 41 starters were still in the race.

I can’t remember everyone who was in the hall, but do remember that Vicky was there.  I was glad to see her as I had wondered several times over the last day and a half as to whether she had survived her low point at Chertsey.  I had conversations with a few others, but really don’t remember who was there or what we talked about.

At about 2:30pm I headed out the door for the 7th leg of the race, 27 miles through to Fenny Compton.   I don’t have many/any memories of the next few hours other than noticing some bites on the inside of my left leg, just above the knee.  When I reached down to scratch what felt like an itch my inside leg was wet with a clear fluid that wasn’t sweat.  It was a sticky pus.  I noticed that I had about five or six insect bites.  They weren’t sore, but were a little itchy, and a little pusy.  For the remainder of the race, every time I had a drink I poured some water on my hand to rub over the area to keep it clean.  After the race the bites were diagnosed as being infected spider bites and I was given an IV antibiotic plus 7 days of antibiotics to aid my recover from them.

I also remember that my left shin was starting to hurt now, and on a couple occasions during this leg I managed to beg an ice cube off people on canal boats.  The swelling was still localised and in a perfect place where I could put an ice cube over the swelling and hold it in place with my sock.  It was also about now that I started on the pain killers.  I carry a small first aid kit in long races like this.  It wouldn’t pass any quality tests for first aid kits, but does include some paracetamol tablets, some KT tape (for taping blisters and repairing shoes), a pin (for popping blisters), and a scalpel (for cutting away parts of a shoe that might be rubbing if necessary).  So I started on the painkillers probably around about 160 miles and would continue for the remainder of the race, restocking at checkpoint 8 on Saturday.

Another memory I have is getting lost above the Braunston Tunnel.  This is a section where the canal goes through a tunnel and the race follows a path up a hill and down the other side, or in my case (and that of Nicole Atkinson who chose to follow me) it involved wandering around lost for about a mile.  I have walked the Grand Union Canal Race, which goes in the opposite direction, on three occasions and when we got to the top of the short path from the canal I was adamant that we shouldn’t go straight ahead through the narrow overgrown trail as I didn’t remember that from the GUCR.  15 minutes later Nicole suggested that we back-track to work out where we had gone wrong.  Thanks Nicole.  I hate back-tracking, but if you hadn’t made that suggestion, I don’t know how much longer we would have continued wandering around lost.

Lost above Braunston Tunnel
We were travelling from right to left. At the point identified by the arrow, rather than going straight ahead we turned left and then effectively went back in the wrong direction to the road, and then along the road over a bridge over the canal.  According to my Strava analysis, it looks like we walked about a mile extra in total.

I’m not sure if this was the first time that I met Nicole properly (I remember saying hello to her at checkpoint 3 and again at the canal café on leg 4, and seeing her at checkpoint 5), but I think helping her get lost above the Braunstone Tunnel might have been our first proper introduction.  We would spend many hours walking together between now and the end of the race.

Braunstone is where we turned left on the Oxford Canal, and for me this was now new territory.  I had heard stories about the ‘quality’ of the trail on the Oxford Canal and I would not be let down.  The section from Braunstone through to Oxford is not something I want to walk again – ever. Or at least until next time I do this race 😊.  I hated it.

Nicole stopped for a short break in Braunstone and I continued.  I recorded this facebook live video soon after:

Facebook Live video 1

I’ve mentioned in previous race reports that in races like this time doesn’t seem to have any meaning.  Hours can go by and it feels like minutes, or minutes can feel like hours.  In writing this race report I was going to say that it got dark about 30 minutes before we arrived at the next checkpoint and that Nicole caught me up again when my head torch battery died just as I turned my light on.  But looking at the split times from the race tracker, we didn’t arrive at Fenny Compton until 12:45am meaning that we walked in darkness for around three hours.

If this is the case, then I suspect that I probably walked with Nicole for about two or more hours.  I remember that my head torch died (I was using my spare head torch and intended picking up my main head torch at the next checkpoint) and I knew that someone was only a hundred meters, or so, behind me because I had seen their head torch.  So I stopped and waited for that person to catch me.  It was Nicole and it turned out that she had an extremely bright spare hand torch which she lent me.  I decided to sit in behind Nicole and let her do the hard work of concentrating on foot placement for the duration of the journey through to Fenny Compton.  Every now and then she would warn me of holes in the ground so that I didn’t step into them.  How anyone managed to walk the Oxford Canal without twisting an ankle or falling in the canal is anyone’s guess.  Not only were there regular holes in the ground, but on many occasions that gap between the hedge on the right and the water on the left was just a few inches (ok, maybe 10-15 inches), and the camber of the ground was very steep.  And when the path was smooth, it was overgrown and difficult to see.

Oxford Canal trail photo from Mandy Foyster
This photo was taken by Mandy Foyster somewhere on the Oxford Canal and shows just how overgrown the path was in places

Like most of the checkpoints, the last couple miles leading up to the checkpoint seemed to drag on for ages but at 12:45am (62 hours 45 minutes) we arrived at checkpoint 7 (183 miles).

I wasn’t tired (I had only had a total of two hours sleep in 62 hours but I wasn’t tired) and I had heard that the temperature was going to be brutal on Saturday, so I decided to get going as soon as I could.  Nicole had decided to have a sleep, and as I was preparing to leave I heard Vicky arriving but it was obvious that her race was over.  I didn’t see her but heard her complaining about severe back pain.  Vicky had never run further than 100 miles, and we were now at 183 miles!

Day 4 – not the end I wanted

I left checkpoint 8 at exactly 1am for the 23 mile leg through to Lower Heyford, and after about 30 minutes Steve Illingworth caught me.  I don’t remember seeing him previously during the race but we spent the next 3 hours walking together – or to be more precise, I spent the next 3 hours following Steve.  He was walking at a good pace and I stuck in right behind him.  As with a few hours earlier when I was following Nicole, Steve would call out “hole” every now and then to warn me when I needed to keep an eye on my footing.

On occasions we also had someone else sitting in behind me, but I can’t remember who that was.  Steve would call out “hole” and I would repeat “hole”.  I remember at one time, we had been doing this for a few minutes when Steve called out “unicorn”.  It was funny at the time 😊

At around 4:45am, just after daylight, we arrived at Banbury where about six locals were getting in some early morning swim training in the local lock.  Either that, or they were on their way home after a hard night out and had stopped for a swim.

Steve wanted a coffee and the ‘swimmers’ told him that the local Morrison’s was about three minute’s walk to right (away from the Canal).  I didn’t want coffee and also suspected that a) the Morrison’s would be closed, and b) their 3 minutes was probably more like 10 minutes at our pace.  Steve agreed and we continued along the canal, but I started to slow and let him go off ahead of me.

Facebook Live video 2

The rest of the journey to Lower Heyford comprised of more overgrown trails and with the due on the grass, it wasn’t long before my shoes and socks were wet once again.  Maxine had done a great job taping my feet though and I was relatively blister free when I arrived at checkpoint 8 (206 miles) at 9:45am (71 hours 45 minutes).

My left shin was killing me however, and I asked for ice – which there was none.  Instead, one of the fantastic volunteers (I think it was Glyn) decided to fill one of the large plastic containers, that they had used for transporting equipment to the checkpoint, with cold water from the tap near the checkpoint, and I soaked both feet and lower legs for 30+ minutes.

Thames Ring 250 - checkpoint 8
Soaking my feet and shins at checkpoint 8

Today was going to be the hottest day of the race, with forecast afternoon temperatures of around 34 degrees, so I wasn’t in any rush to get moving.  After soaking my legs I then let them dry in the sun whilst talking to the volunteers.  There were also a couple other runners at the checkpoint but I can’t remember who.

With Maxine already at the next checkpoint, Russell Tullett did an excellent job of draining the couple blisters I did have, and re-taping my feet once they were dry, and at some stage late in the morning (I have no idea what time), I headed out into the heat of the sun for the 9th leg through to Abingdon.

This leg was a real struggle.  The pain in my shin was getting worse and I was popping paracetamol like they were M&M’s.  The heat was oppressive too.  I was walking from one shaded area to the next and resting in the shade.  It was very slow going.

Oxford Canal

About 3pm I decided that perhaps a short sleep would help and lay down on the grass beside the trail, setting my alarm for 30 minutes time.  It turned out to be one of the worst things I could have done.  When I stood up again, I couldn’t put any weight on my left leg.  My shin was in agony and I thought my race was over.

I had another two paracetamol and started hobbling the best I could.  When I reached the next canal boat I asked if the had any ice cubes.  They didn’t, but they pointed to a tap opposite them and suggested that I run cold water over my sore, and visibly swollen lower shin.  It was at this stage that I came up with the idea of soaking one of my arm sleeves (I was using pull up sleeves to protect my arms from the sun) and tying it around my shin like a cooling bandage.  This helped, and I continued on my way.

It think it was around about now that I was caught by Nicole and shortly after, by Ernie Jewson and Andy Ives.  Both Andy and Ernie had competed in all five of the previous TR250’s, and Ernie had also attempted a double TR250 with Javed Bhatti and Rich Cranswick in 2015 (the year I first heard about this race).  Once again I decided to sit in behind and I followed my three companions into Oxford, where Nicole stopped for some refreshments.  Crossing from the Oxford Canal on to the Thames I managed to lose contact with Andy and Ernie.

Following Ernie, Nicole and Andy
Following Ernie, Nicole and Andy

I may have mentioned that Nicole is a GP, and she asked whether I was taking painkillers for the shin.  I sheepishly admitted that I had probably taken many more than I should.  I suspected I had taken about 12 paracetamol since Lower Heyford (so in about a 6 hour period) and told her that they weren’t working.  Nicole gave me 8 codine tablets which she said was all I was allowed between there and the finish – which at current speed was probably 12+ hours away.

We (Nicole and I) played cat and mouse for a little bit after leaving Oxford.  She was walking much faster than me but stopping for regular rests where I would catch her.  Strangely, I was actually enjoying myself and whilst we still had a long way to go, and my shin was in a lot of pain, I knew that I would finish.

I recorded another facebook live video:

Facebook Live video 3

Shortly after recording this video Nicole caught up with me again but I was going very slowly and told her to go on ahead, and that I would see her at the checkpoint.

About halfway between Oxford and the next checkpoint at Abingdon the trail once again became difficult to walk with a very uneven surface and the pain in my shin started to become intolerable.  I had a call with my wife and two of my sons who all told me how proud they were of my efforts and said that they would meet me at the finish.  I told them that I suspected that would probably be sometime around 8am, maybe 10am tomorrow, as I was now going incredibly slowly, and I would message them later in the night to let them know my ETA.

The rescue:

It was about 10:20pm when I rang Maxine to ask how far away I was from the Abingdon checkpoint.  I was really struggling with the pain.  The ground was uneven and I was following a trail alongside a fence line that had wooden posts every 3 or 4 steps.  I was using each fencepost to rest and take the weight of my leg.  I couldn’t go on like this and had no idea how far away the checkpoint was.  If it was close, then maybe I could get there.

Maxine checked the online tracking webpage and said that it looked like I was still about 4km from the checkpoint.  I told her that I couldn’t continue.  She told me that I had to because where I was, they couldn’t get a car in to rescue me.  I took some more painkillers and told Maxine that I would rest for 30 minutes and then see if the painkillers reduced the pain.  They didn’t.

I called Maxine again.  She, along with David Edwards were on their way to find me and had Maxine’s walking poles in the hope that I could use them as crutches to take the weight off my leg and walk to the checkpoint.

Around now, Charlotte Smith caught me.  I had seen Charlotte a few times during the race, mostly at checkpoints, but we hadn’t spoken yet.  I told her that I suddenly remembered in the middle of last night that I had met her previously – at the Royan 48 hour race last year.  I don’t know why it was important that I told her that, but it was.  I told Charlotte to keep going, that Maxine was on her way to rescue me, and there was no need for her to wait.

While I waited I started to cool down.  It was dark now and the temperature had dropped.  I put my jacket and waterproof trousers on, and also got my space blanket out of my backpack.  If you have ever doubted the need for mandatory kit in races such as this, it was 30+ degrees when I left the checkpoint 10 or 11 hours earlier.  I was now shivering, and if I hadn’t been carrying that mandatory kit, it wouldn’t just be a sore leg that we would be dealing with.  Mandatory kit isn’t for when things are going well but for when things go wrong.  Don’t take any shortcuts.  You might regret it.

Anyway, Maxine and David arrived and I found that the walking poles didn’t help at all.  I couldn’t even put my foot on the ground, let alone try to walk.

David decided to stay with me while Maxine went exploring to identify whether there was another way out.  About 1km back along the trail she found a large country estate which was empty.  If a car could be driven down the driveway, then perhaps that would be the best option to get me out.  She called Lindley who had just seen Mandy Foyster finish her race at the Morell Rooms in Streatley and they hatched a plan for my rescue.

Whilst this was happening, Ernie Jewson caught up with us.  I was sprawled across the trail covered by my space blanket and offered to move to let Ernie past.  But Ernie thought he could step over me, not realising that there was a small hole on the other side, and he tumbled to the ground reaching out for the fence to cushion his fall.

Did I mention that between each wooden fence post there were two rows of barbed wire?  Well, as Ernie discovered, when you put your hand on barbed wire, and you have also been taking painkillers, your blood is a lot thinner than normal, and what would normally have been a small scratch created a lot more blood than would normally be expected.  David and I administered first aid – consisting of some tissue to stop the bleeding and some KT tape to hold the tissue in place, and Ernie headed off for the next checkpoint and some ‘better’ first aid care.  Unfortunately, several hours later Ernie would become the last DNF for this race when he found himself struggling mentally and unable to continue.

Lindley arrived and advised that he was able to drive as far as the other side of the country estate, meaning that we would need to walk about 1km to get to his vehicle.  A former fireman, Lindley is trained in rescuing people and he threw me over his shoulder and carried me to the car.  Perhaps it wasn’t quiet as simple as that.  I remember David being given a lesson in carrying a ‘body’ over his shoulder, and the two of them taking turns.  Carrying an 83kg fully grown man 1km over rough terrain, and in the dark, is not easy, and I want to take this opportunity to thank Lindley, Maxine, and David for the work they did to rescue me.  And also to thank the owners of the country estate for not having a locked gate at the road entrance to their estate, which was about another mile or further along the driveway.

The end:

Lindley dropped Maxine and David back to the Abingdon checkpoint and collected my bags before taking me to the finish at the Morell Rooms.  It was around 2am by the time we arrived, well over 3 hours after I had first called Maxine for help.

I had a couple hours sleep, waking when I heard some of the runners finish, but not really being conscious enough to know who it was that was finishing.

When I woke the following morning I couldn’t put any weight on my leg at all, but I found I could crawl.  My son, Jarrad, collected me mid-morning and took me home for a shower before taking me to Kingston Hospital where they x-rayed my leg and diagnosed a bone bruise.  They also diagnosed the infected spider bites and gave me some penicillin via an IV.  When they gave me some crutches I asked if I would need these for a few days until I could walk again.  They said, “use the crutches for the next two weeks and make an appointment to see your GP”, so 8 days later I am still unable to walk without crutches although the swelling has gone down by about 80%, and I am keeping my leg elevated whenever possible.

I have cancelled my next race, the KACR 145 mile race at the end of July.  Whilst there were no refunds, I asked the organisers to remove my entry so that I wouldn’t be tempted to compete based on the fact that I could walk again.  My next race is currently unknown but I have entered another 250 mile race in October – the Lon Las CYMRU Ultra from Holyhead in the North West of Wales to Cardiff.  Ideally I would like to do some races before then, but will have to wait and see what happens.

The results:

Thames Ring 250 aftermath
A hoodie and crutches

In the end, for me, the Thames Ring 250 resulted as a DNF at 230 miles.  230 miles plus approximately 8 ‘bonus’ miles.  My Garmin recorded over 238 miles (383km) in 3 ½ days.  It appears that all the runners recorded extra miles.  I also understand that the Oxford Canal was measured in nautical miles which are longer than imperial miles.

Regardless, I think this race is perhaps one of my best athletic performances ever, even better than my six day races which were on a 1km circuit and much easier to walk than the terrain of the canals.  I am therefore allowing myself to wear my TR250 hoodie even although I didn’t complete the course.

I spent hours walking with Victoria (DNF at 183 miles), Nicole (98 hours 25 minutes), and Steve (91 hours, 21 minutes).  I also walked with many other people at various stages of the race.  Most didn’t finish for various reasons – only 14 of the 41 starters finished the race.  Congratulations to everyone, regardless of your final result.

Thames Ring 250 results board 2019
Thames Ring 250 results board 2019

 

And a huge thank you to Lindley, Maxine, and to all the volunteers that manned the checkpoints through the race.  This is an awesome event thanks to your efforts.

See you all for the 7th edition of the Thames Ring 250 in June 2021!

Continental Centurions Race 2019

Last weekend 62 racewalkers converged on Weert, Holland for the 2019 Continental Centurions Race – the annual qualifying race to join the elite group of athletes who have walked 100 miles in less than 24 hours.  The Continental Centurion club was established in 1973 and before last weekend’s race 471 walkers from all around the world had qualified as a Continental Centurion.

There are seven Centurion clubs worldwide (UK, Continental, USA, Australia, NZ, Malaysia, and Africa) with a total of 1,531 unique members.  One person, the legendary Sandra Brown (203 runs/walks of 100 miles or further completed to date) is a member of all 7 clubs.  I am a member of three (New Zealand, UK, and Continent).  Click here for Rob Robertson’s summary of the worldwide Centurion club memberships.

I qualified (for the Continental Centurions Club) at the 2016 race in Schiedam, Holland and my club number is C432.  My time in 2016 was 20 hours and 58 minutes and with that I became the first (and still only) New Zealander to walk 100 miles in under 21 hours.  I’m also the only New Zealand member of the Continental Centurions.

The race venue alternates each year between Schiedam and Weert.  I missed the 2017 race but in 2018 I returned to Schiedam and improved my time, covering the 100 miles in 20 hours 44 minutes, so in my mind I fully expected to complete this year’s race in Weert (my first visit to Weert) in under 21 hours again.  Unfortunately, it was not to be.

Getting there:

I met Kathy and Suzanne at Richmond Station just after 8am on a rainy Friday morning for the drive down to Dover (about 2 hours usually) and our DFDS sailing from Dover to Dunkirk followed by what should have been a 3 hour drive to Weert.  To cut a long story short, we arrived in Dover minutes before boarding for the 12 noon sailing commenced, a sailing that carried bus loads of teenage children meaning that there was absolutely no peace and quiet on the sailing, and then it took 5 ½ hours to drive through to Weert.  Not the ideal preparation for race day!

The course:

Continental Centurions Race routeWe were to walk 50 laps of a 2 mile loop that started and finished on an athletics track and covered the sounding neighbourhood.  Whilst almost completely flat, it was not a fast course, and in places it required concentration (especially at night) to avoid tripping over on the slightly uneven paving stones along one section of the course.  Immediately after starting each lap we left the athletics track and followed a footpath that led around a couple corners and up to a quiet road section which we then followed for a few hundred meters until we re-entered the grounds of the athletics centre and then on to the track for a lap in lane 7 walking clockwise followed by a U turn after almost 400 meters onto lane 1, and a final almost 400 meters to the end of the lap.

After 50 laps of the course, anyone who wanted to continue could walk for up to 24 hours  elapsed time, with the last 30 minutes being confined to the athletics track.  In Schiedam I had walked 183km and 185km and my intention was to do similar (or better) again this year.

We pitched our tent on the outside of the track, not far from the entrance which enabled us to visit it near the start and end of the track section of each lap if necessary.  It was extremely windy on Saturday morning and, rather than focusing on preparing for the race, I spent way too long ensuring that the tent wouldn’t blow away during the race – but that isn’t an excuse for my race performance.

The race:

My plan was to start at 7:30/kilometre pace, which was 24 minutes per lap, which with some slow down in the second half of the race, should give me a 100 mile time of around 20 hours and 30 minutes.

I was carrying a couple minor injuries going into the race, and whilst I didn’t expect them to cause any issues, if they did I was going to ease up and aim for a time of around 23 hours for 100 miles.  I’ve found in the past that an injury that has been bothering me in the lead-up to a race will often completely disappear, never to return, as soon as the race starts and whilst this wasn’t completely true this time, the injuries didn’t impact on my race at all.

I settled in to the race in 14th position for the first few laps and after 5 laps I was just 28 seconds down on 24 minutes per lap pace.  By 10 laps I had moved up to 10th place and was 9 seconds ahead of pace, and feeling reasonable – possibly not as fresh as I would like, but reasonable.

And that was it, from there on in, my race gradually got worse and worse.  I don’t really know what happened, but my 12th lap took 24:52.  It was my slowest lap to date, but would end up being my fastest lap of the rest of the race.  On the following lap I decided to have my first can of Coke.  I normally try to avoid processed sugar during the first 12 hours of any race, but I wasn’t feeling good and needed a kick-start.  I also switched from listening to podcasts to high tempo music – something I also don’t normally need to do until mid-race, but also something that normally gives me a boost.

I eventually reached 50 miles in 10 hours and 30 minutes.  My planned pace was 10 hours flat although I would have been happy with anything under 10:10.  Any chance of a PB was well gone now but I still has 11 hours and 7 minutes to complete the next 50 miles if I wanted to beat Gerald Manderson’s 1998 New Zealand M50 record time of 21:37, and I used that as motivation for the next few laps.  But I was getting slower and slower and beginning to wonder if I could even finish the race.

It was time to try some new strategies.  With two races of 250 miles coming up later this year, I had downloaded a range of different music as well as some stand-up comedy to listen to, so I tried both of these.  The stand-up comedy might have been funny if I wasn’t 14 hours in to a race that I no longer wanted to be in, but it wasn’t helping me today.  And Willie Nelson’s “On the road again” was just annoying me.  When The Proclaimers starting singing about walking 500 miles, that was almost the end of it for me.

Before my first 24 hour race in 2013 I was given some important advise: “Beware the chair”.  In other words, avoid sitting down at all costs.  And in most of my races I apply a rule that if the race is too short to need a sleep mid-race, then it is too short to need to sit down too.  All of my best races have been races in which I haven’t sat down between the start and the finish, including what I consider to be my best ever athletic accomplishment – walking for 44 hours non-stop when I circumnavigated London’s M25 motorway in 2017.

But just before 15 hours was up, and just short of 68 miles in to the race, I found myself sitting in the chair outside our tent.  It was only for a few minutes, probably 5, but I was sitting down, breaking my cardinal rule.  I was mentally weak and I knew it, and I don’t think the break really made any difference to my speed either.  I just wasted 5 minutes.

I should probably mention at this stage that Suzanne had dropped out of the race early on, and had become my support crew.  If it wasn’t for her I know I would have been in much worse condition.  She was feeding me whenever I needed it, and would continue to support me through to the finish.  I asked Suzanne how Kathy was going and she pointed to the corner of the tent where Kathy was sleeping.  She wasn’t having a good race either, but in Kathy’s defence, she had completed a six day race less than 4 weeks earlier.

I completed another 10 laps at an average of 30 to 32 minutes per lap before I found myself sitting down in the same chair again.  This time for about 8 minutes.  I was not enjoying the race at all, but with just 12 miles to go I knew I should be able to complete 100 miles within the 24 hour time limit, and until I was 100% certain that that wouldn’t be possible, I would keep going.

Continental Centurions Race 2019
At about 20 hours, coming up to the U turn on the track

I finally reached 100 miles in 23 hours 29 minutes and 40 seconds.  There was never any thought of continuing through to 24 hours.  I had dropped from a best position of 9th place (which I held from 40 to 56 miles) to 18th place, being passed by a flying Margy Michiels, who walked the last lap in 26 minutes against by 31, with about 50 meters to go.

What went wrong:

The only thing I can put this down to is a bad day.  If I scale the length of this race back a little, last year I completed 100 miles in 20:44.  This year it took 23:29, or 13% longer.  It is like walking a 33 ½ minute 5km when aiming for 29 ½ minutes (my current 5km PB).  Not an ideal result, but not terrible.  But the difference between a bad 5km and a bad 100 miler is that rather than suffering for half an hour, I suffered for 20 hours!

I believe that the problem was 100% mental.  There is a saying that “an ultramarathon is 90% mental, and the other 10% is in your head” and I think this was very much the case for me here.  My injuries (left foot arch and right glute) didn’t really cause any problems, but reviewing my heart rate I see that for a large amount of the race my heart rate was less than 100 beats per minute and at times it got down as low as 60!  I just wasn’t putting in the required effort.

Lap times versus heart rate
Lap times (in blue) versus heart rate (in red)

The good news is that if I can suffer for 20 hours and keep moving at a pace fast enough to complete 100 miles in less than 24 hours, then when times get tough in my upcoming 250 mile races, I know that I will be able to keep going.  I just need to remember that when it gets hard next time.

What’s next:

And that brings me to what I’ve got coming up next.  Having sworn to myself during the race that I wouldn’t do it, four days after getting home I entered the Thames Ring 250 (TR250) which starts on Wednesday 26th June.  I’ve never entered a race that I haven’t had 100% confidence in my ability to finish before I started, but having come off three less than stellar races this year (Last One Standing, Castleward where I was eliminated after just 18 hours, Belfast to Dublin Return in which I DNF’d at 160 miles, and now the Continental Centurions Race), and having DNF’d my last attempt at the TR250 at 132 miles, there is absolutely no guarantee that I’ll finish this next challenge.  That said, my wife has told me not to come home if I don’t finish, and I’ve told the race organisers that they are not to collect me if I ring them to drop out.  So this will be a big test of my mental strength.

I’ve also entered the Lon Las CYMRU 250 mile Ultra from the north west corner of Wales down to Cardiff (south west corner) in October, but more about that later.

Race Results:

23 walkers completed 100 miles in under 24 hours at Weert this year with 15 of them joining the Continental Centurions club as new members.

I finished 18th overall.  I think this equals my worst placing in a walking race, but of the 25 walks I have completed of 100 mile or longer, 23 hours 29 minutes is my 8th best time to date, and 13th 100 miler completed in less than 24 hours.  That said, the majority of the 100 mile times slower than 23 1/2 hours are all walks that were much longer than 100 miles, ranging from 130 miles through to 380.

Final thoughts:

On the day after the race, someone asked me on facebook why I push myself through events like this.  She asked why not walk 3 x 33 miles and enjoy them all, rather than suffer through one long event.

It isn’t easy to explain but I can tell you that I wouldn’t have it any other way.  I am so lucky to be able to compete in events like this.  Many people can’t – or won’t.

Five years of walking in and around London

Last week marked the fifth anniversary of my moving back to London, and according to Strava, in those 5 years I have completed just under 1,000 walks with the majority of them being in and around the London area – hence the name of this blog RichardWalksLondon.

Using a combination of a website that enables people to consolidate multiple Strava activities into one map, and some video editing, I have compacted the last five years into a 1 minute video showing the cumulative reach of my walks.

This includes two complete laps around the M25 motorway (March 2016 and May 2017 – which I still think is my best walking achievement to date at 158 miles/254km in 44 hours without sitting down from the time I started until I finished), the Thames Path 100 mile race from Richmond to Oxford in May 2015 where my watch battery died part way through leaving a big gap (in my map) between Maidenhead and Henley, my July 2017 walk following the District tube line and also my walk through all the streets of the Monopoly board, and many other training walks and races.

I suspect that I have covered more of the Greater London area on foot than 99.999% of the population, but I’m not finished yet.  In another five years I’ll record another video showing my progress, but in the meantime, please watch this short video: