Sri Chinmoy 24 hour track race – Battersea Park 2021

If I say so myself, I write some interesting race reports. But how do you write an interesting race report about walking 414 laps around a 400 metre athletics track? 

Sri Chinmoy 24 hour raceThe 2021 edition of the Sri Chinmoy 24 hour track race, a race that has been held at Tooting Bec track every year for the last 30+ years, was at a new venue this year – Millennium Stadium, Battersea Park. 

My first 24 hour race in October 2013 was the Sri Chinmoy 24 hour race held at Millennium Stadium in Auckland, New Zealand.  In that race I completed just under 163km (101 miles) in 24 hours.  Little did I know at the time that that first 24 hour race would be the start of an incredible adventure that has seen me complete 33 more walks of 100 miles or further including New Zealand race-walking records, multi-day races and solo adventures. 

The London Sri Chinmoy 24 hour race is a running race but included in the 45 starters were two people who would be walking the whole way – myself and David Hoben.  Other competitors included both male and female elite GB runners, visually impaired runner Sinead Kane who would be running with guide runners, and 81 year old Patricia Seabrook who would break multiple world age-group records during the race. 

My Why: 

I’ve come to learn that ultra-distance races are much easier mentally if you have a reason for doing the race – your ‘Why’.  When the going gets hard, and even during a great race you will have times when it gets hard and you question why you are doing it, you can think about your ‘why’ and that ‘why’ will help you get through the difficult stages of the race. 

The best race I’ve ever had was when my ‘why’ was the strongest.  I had entered this race for two reasons:  

  1. It was in London meaning that I could catch the train to the race that morning and catch the train back home after the race – no need for any accommodation or long-distance travel (the Sri Chinmoy race is the same weekend as one of my favourite French races – the Roubaix 24 hour race – but with travel to France a little risky at present, staying in London was a much better idea), and 
  2. I wanted another sub-24 hour 100 mile time. 

My ‘why’ was therefore that I wanted to complete another (my 16th) sub-24 hour 100 miler.  I also gave myself another reason not to fail by walking parkrun in Richmond on my way to the race that morning.  I would look like an idiot if I did a 5km ‘warm-up’ and then failed to achieve my race goal. 

There certainty wasn’t any guarantee that I could walk a sub-24 hour 100 miler in this race though.  I’ve been carrying a couple minor injuries all year – my left shin which I hurt in 2019 in still not completely healed and my right piriformis muscle has been plaguing me since January.  Another few weeks, one more race, and I’ll be taking a two-month rest to get over the injuries. 

Mentally though, I felt very strong and I felt confident that I could walk somewhere between 100 and 105 miles. 

The first nine hours: 

The race started at 12 noon in warm, sunny conditions with a gentle breeze to keep the temperature comfortable.  I settled at the back of the field for the first two laps before passing David and Patricia and for the next six hours I was in 43rd place of 45 athletes. 

Sri Chinmoy 24 hour race - Starting in last place
Starting in last place

The one thing I didn’t like about the race was that we were all asked to run/walk in single file (no problem with that) on the white line separating lanes 1 and 2.  This would allow faster athletes to under-take slower athletes rather than lose distance by overtaking them.  The problem with this concept was that as a walker, for the first period of the race I was travelling slower than everyone else in the field, and therefore most of my laps were between 405 and 407 metres in length (On athletics track the inside of lane 2 is 407.67 metres in length).  If I was to walk 100 miles (402 laps) I would need to walk an extra 2 kilometres if I averaged five extra metres per lap.  At an expected pace of a little over 8 minutes per kilometre, that meant I actually needed to walk 23 ¾ hours or better for 100 miles, and then the extra 2km to reach my sub-24 hour 100 mile goal. 

In my first 24 hour race back in 2013 everyone (runners and walkers) was allowed to walk on the inside of lane 1 and faster athletes had to overtake.  My second 100 mile race was also on a track (the UK Centurions qualifying race in 2014 – a walkers only event) and again we walked on the inside of lane 1.   

If I was an elite runner I be thankful for the rule imposed by the race organisers, and this was a runners race, so who am I to complain – I’m currently the 43rd fastest in a field of 45. 

Unlike many of the trail running races I have competed in over the years, I didn’t know too many of the other competitors and the last thing I wanted was to get offside with any of the runners or the race organisers, but every time we reached the curve at either end of the track I would look behind me and if there was a reasonable gap between myself and the approaching runners I would cut the tangent and walk into the inside of lane 1.  Occasionally the runners catching me would be running faster than I anticipated and would call out “Track” and I would step out towards lane two to allow them to undertake me.  I found that I was constantly looking over my shoulder but I also felt that I was at least able to average a saving of a couple metres every lap, probably averaging 404 to 405 metres each lap. 

Surprisingly I started unlapping myself against many runners after just six hours.  I was expecting that it would be eight to nine hours before the runners started to slow.  As a walker I find that my overall pace is more consistent than most runners in ultra-distance races, and unlike most runners I had no intention of stopping at any stage during the race, and I didn’t have a chair near my food, etc.  My personal rule is ‘Don’t sit down in races shorter than 36 hours’.  It’s a rule that I don’t always apply, but for this race I had no intention of stopping or sitting down. 

I passed 40 miles (64km) in exactly nine hours.  Looking at the race stats while writing this race report I see that of the first 161 laps, 145 of them took me between 3:10 and 3:30, three laps were faster than 3:10, seven took me between 3:31 and 3:35 and the other six laps involved either quick toilet stops or quick stops to restock my pockets with some of the food I had brought with me to the race – I had made a late decision to bring my own food rather that eat food from the aid station that we passed during each lap as a health precaution – covid and hygiene. My slowest lap in the first nine hours took 4:25. 

I was feeling good and not only was I unlapping myself against many runners (I guestimated that I was probably walking faster than about half the runners in the race), I was also starting to move up the leader board. 

It was now dark, but we were walking/running on a floodlit track, and the wind had completely died away.  It was a beautiful night.  I was still walking hard enough that I wasn’t cold at all, although many runners were beginning to put warmer clothes on.  I was on pace for a good result if I could hold the pace. 

Sri Chinmoy 24 hour race - lap times for first 9 hours
Lap times for first 9 hours

A minor slow-down: 

I don’t know why, but I started to slow down a little after nine hours.  Rather than comfortably walking most laps in 3:20, give or take, I was now struggling to keep my lap times under 3:30. 

From the start I had been walking two laps at a fast walking pace, a few seconds per lap slower than my powerwalking pace, and then I would powerwalk for the next 23 minutes through to the end of the half hour.  Because of my injuries I can’t race-walk anymore – losing about 15-30 seconds per kilometre on my normal race pace – but this pattern of 7 minutes easy, 23 minutes harder seemed to work well. 

On the half hour I would eat and ‘rest’ during the two easier laps, and on the hour I would use my phone to check the live results on the internet.  The organisers were manually updating a leader board every hour but unlike the multi-lap races I compete in in Holland and France there was no electronic scoreboard, so I used my two easy laps at the top of each hour to check the online results and also eat and drink – I was drinking water from the aid station whenever I needed it. 

Checking the internet results also enabled me to skim back through my lap times to check that I was maintaining an even pace.  Most of the race I would check the seconds on the race clock at the end of each lap and then work out how long my lap had taken me.  As the race went on though, it became increasingly difficult to remember the number of seconds that were on the race clock for the three and a bit minutes each lap was taking.  

Anyway, my focus was now on walking sub-3:30 minute laps and that kept me going for a while but eventually I decided that it was time to start drinking coke and switch my food intake up a level by increasing the quantity of food I was eating that contained processed sugar.  Normally in a race of 24 hours or longer I try to get through to at least 12 hours before increasing my sugar intake, but I had my first coke at just 10 ½ hours. 

Mentally, if not physically, it did the trick and I started feeling better.  I passed 12 hours with exactly 85km (53 miles) completed, and I reached 100km in 14 hours and 10 minutes.  A reasonable pace and still on track for 105 miles. 

In the 89 laps I walked between 9 hours and 100km, 51 were under 3:30 and another 21 took between 3:31 and 3:40. 

Sri Chinmoy 24 hour race - lap times from 9 hours to 100km
Lap times from 9 hours to 100km

The bad patch: 

And then happened.  No sooner had I passed 100km I started losing more time on every lap.  I was still trying to walk under 3:30 per lap, but it was now much harder. 

Sri Chinmoy 24 hour race leaderboard
Sri Chinmoy 24 hour race leaderboard

I was still working my way up the leader board, passing runners regularly and spending more time walking on the inside of lane 1 than earlier in the race, and in as far as bad patches go, this wasn’t really too bad. 

I kept focusing on my lap times, walking two easier laps every 30 minutes, and eating and drinking regularly.  Compared with many races I’ve done, the race wasn’t actually that hard and I was still maintaining a pace that would see me complete 100 miles comfortably within the 24 hour time limit. 

From 100km through to 20 hours only 14 of the 97 laps I completed were under 3:30.  The majority (60 laps) took between 3:31 and 3:45, and 16 laps took between 3:46 and 4 minutes – with the remaining 7 laps being laps containing toilet breaks or food restocking stops. 

Four minutes per lap is 10 minutes per kilometre.  Too slow! 

Sri Chinmoy 24 hour race - lap times from 100km to 20 hours
Lap times from 100km to 20 hours – getting slower!

The final four hours:  

Shortly before the 20 hour mark I switched from listening to podcasts to some high-tempo music.  This worked for a while and combined with the fact that it was now daylight (8am) and the knowledge that there were only four hours left, I was able to pick my average pace up again – at least in my mind anyway.  The stats might tell me otherwise (67 laps with only 10 of the sub 3:30, although 56 of them were under 3:45). 

I passed 100 miles in 23:18 – my 8th best time for 100 miles and fastest since my PB (and NZ record) in May 2018.  At 100 miles I was in 23rd position.  Not yet in the top 20 that I had decided to aim for 20+ hours earlier, but not bad considering that I had been in 43rd position for the first six hours. 

A couple runners had stopped at 100 miles and two of the runners in front of me also eased the pace enabling me to finish the race in 19th place overall. 

Sri Chinmoy 24 hour race - 5 minutes to go
5 minutes to go

I also managed to impress myself by walking my fastest two laps in the last two laps of the race.  Lap 413 took me 3:00.7 (not that I noticed the exact time until later).  When I got to the end of lap 412 with just over 7 minutes left on the clock I decided to wind up the pace and make my last full lap my fastest of the race.  Kathy Crilley had come down to watch the end of the race and she had my marker stick (that we had to put on the track when the race finished at 24 hours to enable partial laps to be measured) and she was intending to walk the last lap with me. 

I told Kathy that I was going to walk fast for the last lap and she started running to keep up.  In the end she handed me the marker stick and I went on to finish lap 414 in an impressive 2:47.4 (6:58/km pace) – my only lap of the race under 3 minutes – and then walked another 253 meters to finish the race in 19th place with a 24 hour distance of 165.853km (103 miles). 

Sri Chinmoy 24 hour race - lap times for the last 4 hours
Lap times for the last 4 hours. Note the fast laps at the end.

Other analysis:

Looking at my split times for each 10km segment you can definately see that I felt better during the first 100km, but I’m not too disapointed with the last 60km either.  I think I achieved what I wanted to from the race – a sub-24 hour 100 mile walk and a good last long walk before my next race.

Sri Chinmoy 24 hour race - my 10km splits
My 10km splits

In total I walked 414 (and a half) laps.  A quarter of them took 3 minutes 16 seconds to 3 minutes 20 seconds, and 260 (63%) of them were in the 15 second range between 3:16 and 3:30 – very consistent pacing.

Sri Chinmoy 24 hour race - number of laps per 5 second time range
Number of laps per 5 second time range

What’s Next:

I have one race left this year.  In mid October I will be competing in the Lon Las Ultra – as 250 mile race from Holyhead in North West Wales to Cardiff (South East Wales).  I dropped out of this race in 2019 and am going back this year to redeem myself!

Kennet & Avon Canal Race – KACR – 2021

Following my recent DNF in the Thames Ring 250 in June my wife and son had started calling me ‘DNF’ and I was told not to come home if I didn’t finish the Kennet and Avon Canal Race (KACR).  No pressure then!

In fairness, when I look back on recent race results, excluding my virtual races and solo adventures of 2020 I need to go back to October 2018 to find my last decent race. In 2019 I started five races and had two sub-par performances and three DNF’s, and my only real race in 2020 was a disappointing 48 hour race in Athens.  So perhaps DNF was an apt name for me.

The Kennet and Avon Canal Race is a 143 mile race from Little Venice in London to Bristol following the Grand Union Canal, the Jubilee River, the River Thames, and the Kennet & Avon Canal.  It is the second race in the Canal Race series – the first race being the 145 mile Grand Union Canal Race (GUCR) from Birmingham to London which I have completed in three times previously, and the third race being the 130 mile Liverpool to Leeds Canal Race (LLCR) which I have yet to participate in.

To be honest, my main reason for competing in the KACR was simply to add another line to my ever-growing map showing where I’ve walked since 2014.

Richard Walks London map

Race Day:

With the race starting in London (Little Venice) at 6am I decided to save some money and sleep in my own bed the night before the race.  It meant an early start, leaving home at 4am for the 90 minute journey via two buses and the tube through to the Paddington followed by a short walk to Little Venice, but after my experience with less than ideal sleeping conditions the night before the Thames Ring, I decided this was the best idea for me.

I also discovered that both the last bus on Saturday night, and the first bus on Sunday morning, from Bristol back to London cost only £3, so I booked a seat on both buses.  If I had a good race, I would be able to catch the Saturday night bus back home 38 hours after race start.  If I didn’t race so well, I would be on the 4:30am bus on Sunday morning.

The race got underway at 6am with 74 starters – 72 runners and 2 walkers (the legendary Sandra Brown competing in her 208th race of 100 miles or further – a world record – and myself) in perfect conditions.  The weekend weather forecast didn’t look great but it would be a warm, sunny day to begin with before forecast heavy rain and thunderstorms overnight.

Sandra and I settled at the back of the field walking a little under 8 minutes per kilometre in the early stages of the race. We arrived at the first checkpoint (12 miles) about 30 seconds apart and a minute or two behind the last of the runners.  I stopped for just a few seconds to refill my water bottles and collect some more food, and set off after the runners ahead of me.

During the second 15 mile leg I caught and passed a few runners reaching the next checkpoint in a shade under 6 hours.  A good pace, and a little over 30 minutes inside the cut-off time limit.  One of the concerns when walking in running races is being eliminated by not meeting the early cut-off times which are designed for runners – because it is a running race.  Having got through CP 2 I should be OK with over 3 ½ hours to complete the next 14 miles and then even more time after that between each checkpoint.

It was now early afternoon and starting to warm up a little.  We passed a few ice cream vans beside the river but it wasn’t until we got to Maidenhead that I found one that excepted Google Pay.  I had forgotten to take cash with me – an amateur mistake – and wasn’t even carrying a debit or credit card, just my phone.  At Maidenhead I bought a calippo and then at Henley I had my first short rest when I bought a 7UP and sat down for a break in the shade.

All was going well and I continued to pass runners from time to time. Many of the runners had their own support crew and in a friendly event such as the canal races, support crews are only too willing to help other competitors – which was just what I needed as I was only carrying two 500ml water bottles and in the heat I was consuming in excess of 2 litres of water between each checkpoint.

At some point around 45 miles I was walking along talking to another runner when we missed a turn off which resulted in us adding about 1 ½ to 2 miles to our journey.  ‘Bonus miles’ as they are called in ultramarathon races.

I reached Sonning Lock, the 50 mile point, with 52 miles on my watch.  My time was 11 hours 55 minutes.  I was still on target to catch the 8pm bus home on Saturday night – 93 miles to go and 26 hours until the bus leaves.

We reach Reading shortly afterwards and that was my next rest stop.  How could I not stop when it was dinner time and we walked right past a McDonalds?  We had actually passed a McDonalds at lunchtime too, but I decided to miss that one.

I ate my tea while walking and shortly after finishing my tea, to my surprise I caught Sandra again.  The last time I had seen her was about 45 miles earlier at checkpoint 1, but with my extra mileage when I went the wrong way earlier, and the 10 or so minutes I was at McDonalds, she had caught and passed me.  I walked with Sandra and a few other runners for the next few minutes through to CP4 at 57 miles, and once again I only stayed a minute or so – enough time to refill my water bottles and get some more food.

During the next 13 mile leg it began to get dark and this is when I started to struggle a little.  As a rule I enjoy walking through the night but I felt like I was struggling this time.  In hindsight, I suspect that I hadn’t fully recovered from the Thames Ring which had involved 80+ hours of walking on almost zero sleep.  I also found that my head torch wasn’t working properly, and it was then that I remembered that it hadn’t been working properly during the last hour of the Thames Ring either.  Something I had forgotten until now.  I mucked around trying to get it to work but in the end I settled for having a dim light that didn’t really light up anything more than a meter in front of me.  At some stage probably about five miles before the next checkpoint I either caught two runners or they caught me (I can’t remember which), and I decided that with a failing head torch my best option was to just sit in behind them through to the checkpoint – which is what I did.

I arrived at checkpoint 5, 70 miles, in 41st place in 17 hours and 7 minutes.  I had my spare handheld torch in my dropbag as well as some warmer clothes for the night section, so I stopped for a short break and tried to charge my head torch to see if that helped (it didn’t) and change clothes.  We were told that the weather forecast for the night still didn’t look good, with thunder and lightning plus heavy rain forecast.  So whilst it was still warm I packed some wet weather clothing into my backpack and also changed into my waterproof socks.

Leaving checkpoint 5 I found that my handheld torch worked much better than my head torch but I still couldn’t get into a rhythm.  I felt like I was still struggling a little – just going through the motions.  But I was still passing the occasional runner and figured that that meant I wasn’t the only one who was struggling.

As it turned out, it didn’t rain overnight (apart from some occasional drizzle), or at least not on my part of the canal, but there was lightning in the distance.  The waterproof socks proved to be worthwhile though as we spent a lot of the night and the next morning walking through long, wet, grass and the waterproof socks kept my feet completely dry.

My goal, if I wanted to finish in time for the 8pm bus, was to get to CP7 at 99 miles in around 24 hours but I was going too slow and didn’t arrive at the checkpoint until 7:39am (25 hours 39 minutes).  Physically, I was still feeling reasonable, and I had passed a few runners overnight – the checkpoint log shows that I was now in 31st place – but it was unlikely I would finish in time to make the Saturday night bus.  I wasn’t too worried though.  My number 1 goal was simply to finish.  The time didn’t really matter.

Once again I was in and out of the checkpoint as quickly as possible.  It still wasn’t raining but the checkpoint team said that there was still an ‘amber weather warning’, so I continued to carry my wet weather clothing.

Saturday turned out to just be one very long drag from one checkpoint to the next.  At various times I caught up to both of the lead women but they kept pulling away from me and I was unable to stay with them.  Admittedly, they were running and I was walking.  They would go on to finish just one minute apart, and one hour ahead of me.

A lot of the underfoot terrain was hard going, and I didn’t really enjoy it.  But I was always going to finish this race.  It never got to the stage where I needed a rest, although I did take breaks of around 10-15 minutes at both CP8 and CP 9 (116 and 130 miles).  I didn’t really need the breaks but I had found that my watch kept stopping if I tried to recharge it while walking (a loose connection I think) so I used the need to recharge my watch as an excuse for a rest.

I finally completed the race at 9:13pm, finishing in 25th place in 39 hours and 13 minutes.

KACR Results board

 

KACR finish

The race finished beside a boat which the organisers had arranged to use as the finish line HQ.  This proved to be perfect for the athletes finishing during the night as it was an indoor place where we could rest and even sleep.  In my case, I cleaned myself up (sponge bath) and then slept until 3am before walking through Bristol’s nightlife to the bus station for the much faster trip back to London – the 4:30am bus having missed the 8pm bus the previous evening.

What’s Next:

I had originally entered the Liverpool to Leeds Canal Race at the end of August, but after the Thames Ring I withdrew from that race because I also have the Sri Chinmoy 24 hour track race in London in September followed by the Lon Las Ultra across Wales in October.  I think the reason I struggled so much during the KACR was that I hadn’t fully recovered from the Thames Ring and I think the LLCR might be just one race too many this year.

I’ve always wanted to do the Sri Chinmoy race in London as it is an opportunity to do a race without any travel (before or after the race) and I haven’t done a track race since 2014.  Normally the race conflicts with the Roubaix 28 hour (walking) race in France, but with travel outside of the UK not necessarily guaranteed at present due to Covid, I have decided to use the opportunity to compete in the Sri Chinmoy event.  Watch this space for my next race report.

 

How I lost my mind at the Thames Ring 250

Chances are that you have already heard about my mental collapse less than 15 miles from the end of the 2021 TR250.  If not, I wrote about being rescued by German farm workers here.

After being forced out of the last Thames Ring with just 20 miles to go in 2019 I started this year’s race with one plan, and that was to finish the race no matter what.  Going into the race, other than a couple niggly injuries (right Achilles and right piriformis) I was in great shape, both mentally and physically.  I had trained well over the last three months, including taking very opportunity to train in the hottest part of the day during the recent short summer, and I had also being taking nutritional supplements to enhance my diet.  One of the supplements I had been taking was Creatine which (I had heard) could be beneficial when physical and mental exhaustion started making concentration and focus difficult.

Well, I can tell you that that idea didn’t work!

The day before the race:

Races such as the Thames Ring are more of an adventure than they are a race.  At least they are for me.  My ideal race is something like the Continental Centurions race in Schiedam, Holland, which is on a dead flat 4km tarmac circuit where I can start at a pace I can maintain for most of the 24 hour period, grabbing food and drink at the end of every lap.

For the Thames Ring runners (and me as a walker) we need to carry enough food and drink to get us from one checkpoint to the next, generally 25 to 28 miles, and we must also carry clothing in case the weather changes, a head torch in case we don’t make it to the next checkpoint before darkness, and in this modern age most competitors will also carry a battery charger to enable recharging of phones and watches when/if required.

Food for Thames Ring 250
My ‘race food’ organised in to bags – one for each checkpoint

Preparation therefore becomes mandatory.  Buying suitable food, packaging it into bags (one for each checkpoint), ensuring that you have other essentials such as sunblock, sunglasses, basic first aid supplies, etc.  You see why I think of these events as ‘adventures’.

Getting adequate sleep before the race is also important and leading up to the Thames Ring I was very happy with my sleep.  After 30+ years of avoiding reading books (ever since I left school I have avoiding reading books) I had started reading earlier this year and found that reading for 20-30 minutes every night improved my sleep dramatically.  I also refused to ‘think’ about the race at night as I have a bad habit of going to bed in the week before a race and starting to think about every possible eventuality, and taking hours to get to sleep.

Leading into the Thames Ring everything went perfectly until the night before the race.  To give myself an extra two hours sleep on race morning I decided to stay in Reading the night before the race (local accommodation in Goring being a bit expensive for my budget this year).  Unfortunately I ended up in a 2nd floor hotel room that had a fly-over road immediately outside and the traffic noise throughout the night made sleep difficult.  I should have asked to change rooms when I first checked in, but I assumed that the road noise would die down once night-time arrived.  I should have asked to change rooms at 11pm when it became obvious that the traffic noise wasn’t going to die down, and I should have asked to change rooms at 2am, but by then I decided it was too late.

I think I ended up with around 3 hours sleep (2:30 to 5:30am).  Not ideal, and with hindsight I realise that I should have altered my race plans based on my lack of sleep the night before the race.  But no, I didn’t.

My race plan:

Overgrown Oxford Canal trail
Oxford Canal trail

In 2019 I found the hardest part of the race was the first half of the Oxford Canal, most of which I had done in darkness.  This part of the canal has a camber that slopes into the canal.  It is rough going and overgrown.  Again, it is one of the reasons why races like the Thames Ring are adventures and not races.

So my plan for 2021 was to go hard (relatively speaking) from the start and to get through to checkpoint 8 (206 miles) before sleeping.  I figured that this would enable me to do all of the first section of the Oxford Canal in daylight, making it much easier and faster.

I had gone 85 hours without sleep when walking to all 270 London tube stations last year, so I figured I could handle 60 hours without sleep which is how long I thought I would need to cover the first 206 miles.  But this plan was based on getting a decent night’s sleep the night before the race – which didn’t happen.

Day 1: Goring-On-Thames to Chertsey

Walking into the Goring village hall an hour or so before race start on the Wednesday morning immediately gave me flashbacks to when I was there last – which was after being rescued when my left leg gave up on me a little short of 230 miles into the 2019 event.  I wasn’t able to put any weight on my leg at all and had to crawl around the hall (to get to the bathroom and to get to the exit when my son came to collect me).

Thames Ring 250 - Signing in
Writing my emergency contact details on the back of my race number – in case needed
Nicole and me before the start
Nicole and me before the start

It was also an opportunity to see Nicole Atkinson for the first time since an hour or two before that 2019 DNF.  Nicole and I had spent many hours together in 2019 after firstly getting lost at Braunstone and then walking down a large section of the Oxford Canal together, and I was disappointed that I hadn’t been able to see her finish her race that year.

Nicole had also very kindly given me her 2021 TR250 entry after she decided not to race, and I told her that I intended to “make her proud”.  Nicole was volunteering on day 1 of this year’s race along with many other volunteers that help to make adventures like this possible.

This was the first time I had seen real people in a real race since January 2020 and it was as if we had never been apart.  You make life-long friends in races like these because you all share the same experience no matter how fast or slow you are, and pre-race is a great opportunity to catch-up with each other.

Pre-race briefing - Thames Ring 250
Pre-race briefing

The race started bang on 10am and I immediately launched into my plan of walking 1km at what I call a fast-walking pace followed by 1km at a power-walking pace (slightly faster), and repeat.  Whilst I had told people before the race that I intended to stay at the back of the field for the first 6-12 hours, that was never my plan as I wanted to walk hard throughout the first day with the aim of getting up to the top of the Oxford Canal as early as possible on Friday.

I walked well during the day, reaching the first checkpoint in Hurley (27 miles) in 6 hours and 27 seconds (my goal had been to get under 6 hours so I was a little annoyed at myself for being 27 seconds slower, but I was nine minutes up on 2019) and I was in and out of that checkpoint in just four minutes!

As has become my routine I took a short detour up to McDonalds when I arrived in Windsor 4 hours later.  I often fuel myself on fast food during adventures and 1,000+ calories was just what I needed to get through to the next checkpoint.

Thames Ring 250 - getting lost 1
The first time I went the wrong way!

Soon after my planned detour though, I made an unplanned detour, getting lost for the first time when I turned right instead of left and added an extra kilometre to my journey.  We had walked under a bridge and then turned left to walk up to the road, and were supposed to turn left and go over the bridge and across the river, but for some reason I turned right and it was only when I thought that I should be able to see the person in front of me that I thought to check the map and realised I was walking away from the river.

Back on track I walked hard to catch the runners in front of me, and I eventually arrived at Chertsey (55 miles), checkpoint 2, at 11:31pm (13 hours 31 minutes after race start), 19 minutes ahead of 2019 pace.  As with checkpoint 1, my aim was to get in and out as quickly as possible, and 11 minutes later I was on to what is probably my favourite leg of the race, the leg that goes past my home.

Day 2: Chertsey to Milton Keynes

I love walking through the night, and the third leg of the race was on familiar terrain, following the Thames from Chertsey through to Walton-on-Thames, across the river and then through to Richmond passing close by my house along the way. By the time I arrived in Richmond it was almost daylight again (almost 4am) and we were then on to the Grand Union Canal though to checkpoint 3 in Yiewsley (82 miles) which I arrived at at 6:48am, 23 minutes ahead of 2019 pace.

Teddington Lock
At Teddington Lock – just a short walk from home

I remember arriving in Yiewsley in 2019 feeling fantastic, but that wasn’t the case this time.  I wasn’t feeling bad, but I knew I had worked hard over the last almost 21 hours.

Incredibly I was in 19th position, of the 46 who had started the race.  There had been a high drop-out rate though.  I think that many athletes had misjudged the temperature on day one and were suffering as a result.

My plan of getting as far as I could before dusk on Friday night was still in place and therefore I was in and out of the checkpoint as quickly as possible – although this time my ‘quickly as possible’ was 21 minutes.

Leg 4 continued up the Grand Union Canal to Berkhamsted, and it was during this stage that I started to feel the effects of lack of sleep and the heat (not that it was anywhere near what I would call ‘hot’ though).


My facebook live at 24 hours into the race

I arrived at checkpoint 4 (106 miles) at 4:30pm, which incidentally was exactly the same time that I arrived in 2019, needing some sleep.  Unfortunately the checkpoint wasn’t the quietest, right next to a pub and a lock, and the noise of the water pouring over the lock was too much for me to get any real sleep.  I dozed on and off for about 30 minutes before deciding it was time to get moving again.  In total, I spent 62 minutes at the checkpoint which meant I was now well behind my schedule.  Not to worry though.  I was still positive and wasn’t thinking too far ahead.

It was on the next leg, through to Milton Keynes that I had my first hallucination, if you can call it that.  To date, no one has finished the Thames Ring as a pure walker.  Most/all the runners will walk at some stage during the race, but I am the only person who has attempted to walk 100% of the race.  And at some stage between leaving Berkhamsted and darkness four hours later, I had a ‘conversation’ with someone (in my mind) about some rules that only applied to walkers in the race.  Apparently, to qualify as a walker you had to have paper insoles in your shoes, and because of Covid paper insoles were in short supply and I didn’t have any.  This meant that I wouldn’t be allowed to finish the race.  I have no idea where these ideas came from, but the conversation was clear in my mind and the debate went on for what seemed like hours, but was probably just a matter of minutes.

After that ‘episode’ I remember stopping at Tesco in Leighton Buzzard where I purchased a Coke and a chocolate bar.  The sugar was probably just what I needed.

Leg five was a long slow drag though, and I finally arrived at the Milton Keynes checkpoint (130 miles) at 11:56pm, almost 1 ½ hours slower than 2019.

When I arrived there were several other runners already at the checkpoint and I sat with them for a while, eating bacon sandwiches and preparing for the next leg of the journey.  There was no point in trying to sleep as the checkpoint is under a motorway and in 2019 I found the traffic noise was too much for me to sleep.

Day 3: Milton Keynes to Fenny Compton

I ended up spending 43 minutes at the checkpoint and left a few minutes after those who had arrived before me.

In the 2017 race I was much slower and only made it another two miles after the Milton Keynes checkpoint before dropping out, but this year I was still feeling positive.  I wasn’t really thinking too far ahead but still had the idea that I would at least make it to checkpoint 7 in Fenny Compton (183 miles) before darkness on Friday night.

It was 26 miles from Milton Keynes through to the indoor checkpoint at Nether Heyford and I can’t really understand why, but it took me over ten hours to complete this section.  I arrived at Nether Heyford (156 miles) at 10:57am (48 hours and 57 minutes into the race) which was only 27 minutes slower than in 2019, but in 2019 I had spent two hours trying to sleep at Milton Keynes.


My facebook live at 48 hours into the race

I was feeling good, and didn’t feel tired, so decided not to sleep.  I did take the opportunity to eat, change clothes and shoes, and get blisters drained and taped.  In total I spent 80 minutes at the checkpoint, a lot longer than I should have.

But leaving the checkpoint a little after 12 noon still gave me plenty of time (over 9 ½ hours) before dusk, and I fully expected to cover the 27 miles through to Fenny Compton before dark.

In 2019 I met Nicole Atkinson at the point where we leave the canal to traverse over the Braunstone Tunnel, and then promptly led both Nicole and myself off in the wrong direction.  This year the usual route was blocked off and it wasn’t very obvious what the correct route was.

To say I got totally lost would be an understatement and I eventually used Google Maps to guide me along a road through to Braunstone Marina.  Again, all a part of the adventure!

After that everything seemed to go OK.  I made my way on to the Oxford Canal and was thankful that it was still daylight as the canal seemed to be more overgrown than I remembered it from last time.  And it seemed to be a lot longer than it was last time too.  In 2019 I was fortunate in that I had Nicole for company and she led the way with me not having to do anything other than follow her footsteps, but this time I was alone and soon I was having my next hallucination (if you can call it that).

I started thinking that we were just zigzagging across a farm and that the zigzagging was a social distancing measure to reduce congestion at the next checkpoint.  At least I still knew I was in a race at this stage!

Some time before darkness fell I caught up with Kevin Mayo, who I had thought was behind me, which made me then think I must have gone around in a big loop.  I tried to explain to Kevin that I thought we were just wasting time and that we should cut across the field and head straight to the checkpoint.  He showed me the map on his phone and explained that we needed to follow the canal around a large hill and then we would be at the checkpoint.  “Four miles to go” he said.

Kevin was suffering severe back pain and I was struggling a little with some right knee pain that had been bugging me on and off for the last day or so.  We decided to walk together and I let Kevin lead.  I prefer to follow in situations like this – when I’m totally stuffed.

For the next few hours we walked for a few minutes and then we would stop for Kevin to stretch his back and for me to put my cold hand on my hot knee to try and cool it down.

And every now and then Kevin would check his phone and tell me that we had anywhere from two to four miles to go.

I have no idea how long this went on for, but given that it was 12:55am when we finally made it to the checkpoint, and it wasn’t yet dark when I met Kevin, I suspect we were walking together for well over three hours, and probably covered a lot more than Kevin’s first estimate of four miles.

During most of this time we were walking alongside a flat canal but both of us commented that it felt like we were walking uphill all the time.  And the terrain was terrible. Sloping into the canal, rutted and overgrown.  Not pleasant at all.

At some stage before we reached the checkpoint Kevin decided that he would have to withdraw from the race at the checkpoint and rang his wife to arrange for her to collect him – they don’t live too far away.  I’m grateful that Kevin didn’t take the easy way out and make a detour directly for the nearest road, as I really don’t think I would have made it through to the checkpoint without him.

We finally made it to checkpoint 7, Fenny Compton (183 miles) at 12:55am, 62 hours 55 minutes in to the race, and interestingly, just 10 minutes slower than my 2019 time.

The big difference being that in 2019 I felt great.  In 2021 I was desperate for sleep!

Day 4: Fenny Compton to a few miles after Abingdon and my third DNF

Each checkpoint during the race had a cut-off time, and if the athlete hadn’t left the checkpoint by the cut-off time they were disqualified from the race.  At the first checkpoint, 27 miles, I was 1 ½ hours ahead of the cut-off time.  By checkpoint 5, 130 miles, I was almost four hours ahead of the cut-off.  But now, at checkpoint 7, 183 miles, I had just 65 minutes before the cut-off – and I needed some sleep!

I decided that the best thing to do would be to sort out my food, etc, for the next leg, and then get 30 minutes sleep.  The 30 minutes felt like 30 seconds!  When I was awoken I initially had no idea where I was or what I was doing, and then I remembered that I was in a race.  But I couldn’t remember what kind of race.  There was a guy sitting next to me, Chris, and I looked at him and thought he looked like a cyclist so I thought maybe I was in a triathlon.  But it was dark and you don’t do triathlons in the dark.  I decided I had better keep quiet as I didn’t want to be prevented from continuing in the race due to not knowing what race I was in – I was aware enough to think that if I asked the volunteers what I was doing here, they might disqualify me – but I really had very little idea as to what we were doing.

Chris and I left the checkpoint at exactly 2am, the cut-off time and I walked 10 meters to a picnic table and sat down to have something to eat.  I had remembered what I was doing and knew which way to go, but I only made it 2km along the canal before I decided it was a good idea to sit down and have another sleep.

From Strava I can see that I woke up after a while and walked about 500 meters back the way I had come before sitting down for another sleep.  I remember having some strange dreams and getting upset with my grown-up children about something, but I really had no idea what was going on.  Strava shows I woke up again and walked back in the correct direction before stopping for another sleep.

Thames Ring leg 9 problem
A little bit of back and fourth with some short sleeps at each end

Overgrown Oxford Canal trail
Overgrown Oxford Canal trail

And then at 4:20am, not long after daybreak, my son Jarrad rang from New Zealand and asked “how is the race going”, and suddenly I was wide awake and remembered that I was in a race, and I even remembered what race I was in!

I started walking, feeling good, and spoke to Jarrad for a while.  I have no idea what would have happened if Jarrad hadn’t rung.  There were no other runners behind me but I suspect at some stage one of the race organisers would have rung to check I was OK.

Anyway, for the next few hours I was ‘relatively’ flying.  The overgrown paths soon became walkable again, and I was really enjoying myself.


My facebook live at 72 hours into the race

I had to make a few detours to get around wildlife – in one case there was a family of eight geese that didn’t want me to pass them, and I had to double-back a little, climb a fence and walk along some farmland to get past them.  You don’t want to upset adult geese who are protecting their young.  The only problem with my detour was that to get back on to the canal path I had to clamber through some chest high stinging nettles – all a part of the adventure.  I put on my waterproof over-trousers and jacket to protect my arms and legs from the stinging nettles and climbed the fence before wading my way over to the canal path.

Stinging Nettle on the Thames Ring
I need to walk through that to get back on to the canal path!

And on another occasion I had to ‘encourage’ a herd of cows to move away from a gate so that I could get into the next paddock before taking a long arc around the cows and back on to the canal path.

Cows on the Thames Ring
And now I need to get past these cows!

I was going so well that I even passed three or four runners during this leg of the race, and I eventually arrived at Lower Heyford, checkpoint 8 (206 miles) at 12:23pm, almost three hours behind my 2019 pace but over 2 ½ hours ahead of the cut-off!

In 2019 I had spent well over an hour at this checkpoint soaking my extremely saw and swollen shin in a tub of cold water, but this year I was feeling relatively good and left the checkpoint after just 33 minutes.

By now I was confident of finishing the race, and whilst I wasn’t going very fast I was quite happy walking down the rest of the Oxford Canal and on to the Thames at Oxford for the final stretch through to Abingdon and then on to Goring and the finish line.

In hindsight, the problem I wasn’t addressing was fueling.  I wasn’t hungry and wasn’t eating.  It was another warm day and I wasn’t drinking enough either.  I was conserving water because I was scared that if I drank all my water I wouldn’t find anywhere to get some more.  I really wasn’t thinking clearly.  If I was, I would have remembered that I would be able to get more water in Oxford if necessary.

Eventually I got to the area where I had succumbed to my shin injury in 2019.  I took a photo of where I had been forced to stop and danced on the grave of 2019!  I wasn’t feeling great, but I ‘knew’ that I would finish this race now that I had passed that point.

My Thames Ring 2019 DNF point
This is where I DNF’d in 2019

An hour or so later, just as darkness was approaching, I arrived at Abingdon, checkpoint 9 (230 miles).  It was 9:51pm.  I learned that I was in 13th place, and the guy ahead of me was asleep.

I went straight into competitive mode.  Just like at checkpoint 1 over three days earlier, I was in and out of that checkpoint so fast!  Actually, I wanted to be, but I sat down, had something to eat, sorted out my food and clothing for the final night – there wasn’t much to sort out as I discovered that I still had almost all of my food from the previous checkpoint.

But in my competitive mind I decided that I didn’t need any sleep.  I could complete the final 20 miles overnight, finish in time for breakfast, and then sleep.

How wrong I was.

When I left the Abingdon checkpoint (at 10:51pm, exactly an hour after I had arrived) I knew I was on the final leg of the Thames Ring and had less than 20 miles to go.

A short while later I was walking along a long corridor in a covid ‘something’.  I referred to the corridor as the ‘covid corridor’ in my mind.  The strange thing about the covid corridor was that the seats on each side were like long benches made of clay with some grass or weeds on top.  Every now and again I sat down for a rest, and again Strava shows that at one stage I went back the way I had come for a short while.

Thames Ring covid corridor
The Covid Corridor – back and fourth again

Later I found myself isolated in a field.  I remember that at one stage I thought this was extremely unfair and couldn’t understand why I was being made to walk so far from the finish of the race (I briefly knew that I was in a race but thought I had finished) to the hall to receive my finisher’s medal.  And at other stages I thought I had been abandoned in some kind of outdoor covid quarantine centre.  I was the only person there and I was going around in circles, or at least I thought I was, but couldn’t find my way out.

I remember falling to my hands and knees on a couple occassions, convinced I was lost and would never be found again.

And then I saw some lights.  Initially I thought they were rescuers looking for me, and then I realised that they weren’t looking for me and I started shouting for help.  But they couldn’t hear me so I decided I needed to walk towards them.  I eventually (probably only a minute or two but it felt like hours) got to the bottom of a steep hill and called out to them.  By this stage I thought they were German farmers – no idea where that idea came from.  I was totally out of it by now.

Thames Ring DNF
The end of my journey

And the rest of my story is here – my DNF story.

Lessons Learned:

They say that the only failure is the failure to learn from your mistakes.  Whilst this was my worst experience with mental fatigue, I have hallucinated before, and I was expecting that my decision-making ability would deteriorate during the race – which is why I was trialing Creatine supplementation (which I don’t think worked, or maybe I would have suffered much more/earlier without the Creatine, I don’t know).

I think these are the things I will do differently in my next multi-day race/adventure:

  • Always wear my race number on the outside of my clothing, and if a solo adventure it wouldn’t be a bad idea to have some form of identification and explanation of what I’m doing on the outside of my clothing.
    I think one of the Thames Ring race rules was that our race number was supposed to be visible at all times, but on the final night I had put my over-trousers on over the top of my shorts and my race number was pinned to my shorts. Normally I wear it on an elastic belt which makes it easy to ensure it is outside of all my clothing, and I will ensure I do that in future.
    If my ‘rescuers’ had seen my race number they may have reacted differently to my situation, although to be honest I think at that stage it was probably safer that I was out of the race.
  • Set a regular alarm to remind myself to eat
    For the first 2 to 2 ½ days I ate regularly. After that I didn’t eat much at all.  My low blood-sugar levels would have contributed to my ‘issues’.
  • Sleep at last checkpoint
    I had plenty of time to get to the finish – over 16 hours from the time I arrived in Abingdon. I could have slept for four hours or more and still finished.
    In October I will be walking the 250 mile Lon Las Ultra.  I will definitely be sleeping at the last checkpoint!

 

Overall, it was another great adventure.  I would love to have finished the race, but it wasn’t to be.

I would much rather start an event that I might not finish, and fail to finish, than do something easy.

If I collapse Pause my Garmin