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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.