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

Thames Ring 250 DNF – 2021

With the help of Strava I have spent this afternoon trying to work out what happened last night.

It appears that I left the final checkpoint at 10:50pm and the volunteers have confirmed I was Ok then and didn’t think I needed any sleep before commencing the final 20 mile leg through to the finish.  I remember being at the checkpoint, having something to  eat and repacking my kit for the final leg.  I was there for an hour and didn’t feel too bad considering that I had been walking for over 84 hours by that stage.  I was definitely confident that I would finish the race – finally, on my 3rd attempt.

Strava says I walked about 6.6km in the next 2 ½ hours sticking to the route which followed the river, but my recollection is that I was lost and walking around in circles and I couldn’t find my way out.  I kept seeing things I had already seen – Google says “People who are exhausted or stressed tend to experience déjà vu more” so that probably explains why I thought I was walking around in circles.

So it was now about 1:30am and I think I still knew I was in a race but I also started thinking that I had been abandoned in this field and that it was something to do with covid – some sort of outdoor covid detention or quarantine centre.

I then thought I saw some German farm workers in the distance and I waved my torch to get their attention but couldn’t, so I clambered through stinging nettles shouting out for help and eventually they saw me.  They weren’t actually German farm workers (I have no idea why I thought they were) but were railway workers replacing the line which also explains why they were up high above me and there was a barbed wire fence between us.

I told them that I had been abandoned in this field for two days and needed them to help me.  They hauled me over the fence and walked me back to a road and called an ambulance.  They probably thought I was an escaped mental health patient or something.  I remember they asked if I had had anything to eat or drink and I said I hadn’t eaten anything for two days.  My race number was under my over-trousers and while I was wearing my running vest with water bottles and food in it, they probably didn’t know what that was, or they were just going along with my story.

While waiting for the ambulance Maxine (one of the race organisers) rang me.  That was the first I knew I had a phone with me but while I knew who Maxine was I didn’t think I was in a race and she explained to the railway men that she would come and collect me.

The ambulance arrived and I was checked over and Maxine explained the situation to them and assured them that I was now withdrawn from the race and would be taken to the race HQ to have a sleep – not that I had any interest in re-joining the race at that stage anyway.  The ambulance team asked me to sign something authorising my release to Maxine so everything was done by the books and I want to thank both the ambulance team and the railway workers for their help – if anyone reading this knows anyone that was working on the railway line near Appleford station last night, please pass my thanks on to them.

Thanks to those of you that have messaged me asking if I am OK, and I’m sorry if I caused any concerns.  I also want to apologise to Maxine and Lindley (race organisers) and all the volunteers for any embarrassment I may have caused.  I have suffered minor hallucinations in races before but over the last four days I had some major mind-altering experiences that would cost the average drug user thousands of pounds to experience.

And lastly, this means that the Thames Ring has beaten me three times out of three attempts.  But if I wanted to do something easy it wouldn’t be a challenge.

“If you want to run, run a mile. if you want to experience a different life, run a marathon. if you want to talk to god, run an ultra.” – Dean Karnazes

Walking the tube lines – all 270 London underground stations in five days

It is two weeks since I finished my walk to all of London’s 270 underground tube stations and every night I’m still having strange dreams that involve London’s tube stations. Sometimes the dreams are mini nightmares in which I have finished my 325 mile walk only to discover that I missed one station. Often the dreams involve a strange combination of my current project at work, which involves upgrading a component of the software used by hundreds of UK accounting firms, but the accounting forms are now tube stations.  And then there are the dreams that are so vivid when I’m asleep, but the moment I wake up I can’t remember anything about them.

My wife says that this was the hardest walk I’ve ever done, and I’ve now completed 32 walks of 100 miles or more.  She says that it took 5 nights after I completed the walk before she was able to get a good night’s sleep again.

One thing that people who are not actively involved in ultra-distance sport may not realise is that the event involves much more than just the time the event takes to complete.  There is the lead-up to the event, which often involves me having one or two restless nights sleep immediately beforehand (although not this time fortunately), and then there is the ‘afterwards’.

The first few times I competed in races of 100 miles or longer I found that the first night after the race I had terrible night sweats, often sweating so much that we would have to change the sheets in the middle of the night.  Sometimes I would also be in so much pain that it hurt just to lie down, let alone roll over in my sleep.  As I have become more experienced the night sweats reduced and sometimes disappeared altogether.  The pain was always there and sleeping with a pillow under my feet sometimes helped, but Ruth got used to the fact that if I was going to do a long race/walk, she would probably lose part of a night’s sleep the night afterwards due to my groaning with pain throughout the night.

The reason that Ruth says this was my hardest walk to date is that I had night sweats for three consecutive nights after the walk was over and, apparently, I was both swearing and groaning in my sleep for five nights.

But was it worth it?  Absolutely!  Walking to every tube station in London was probably the best adventure I have had so far.

I’ve created this video which shows the 270 selfies I took in front of each tube station as proof that I had visited them all (plus some additional photos), but there was so much more to the adventure than I had time to talk about in the ten minutes within the video.

Preparation:

After completing a solo circumnavigation of Surrey in early August, and with all the races I wanted to do over the summer either being cancelled or postponed I started looking for another adventure.  In July, when planning for the Surrey circumnavigation I had come up with an idea for a 7 day walk which I don’t think anyone has done previously (which is why I’m not going to tell you what that walk is yet) but the idea for that particular walk scared me so much that I’ve put that on my list for consideration next year instead.  I then heard about a guy setting a new Fasted Known Time (FKT) for the Wainwrights – the 214 highest peaks in Cumbria – and that started me thinking about a London version of this where I would visit tube stations rather than peaks.

For a little while I considered attempting the Smog Graham Round which is visiting the highest peak in each of London’s 32 boroughs but on investigation, I found that some of those ‘peaks’ (which range in height from 22 meters to 245 meters) are on private property which may not always be accessible, so I downloaded a file I found online containing the postcodes of all 270 tube stations and set about identifying the most efficient/shortest route that would enable me to visit all the stations in one very long walk.

One idea I had was to take the tube all the way up to Chesham, the most north easterly tube station and then walk from there to Upminster in the west via every tube station in between.  But the Wainwrights and all the other famous ‘rounds’ generally start and finish at the same point, and I also decided that with Covid-19, I would prefer to avoid actually going into a tube station or on a train/tube if I could.

Richmond Station, which is the end of the District Line, is only a few miles from where I live and I decided that would be the ideal start/finish point for this mammoth walk.

I used a combination of Google Maps, Notepad++ and two GPX creation websites to map a suitable route, convert the Google Maps routes (which could only contain a maximum of 18 waypoints between each start and finish and therefore required multiple maps) into GPX files, consolidate them into one XML file, and then finally produce one consolidated GPX file for me to visualize my planned route.

I’m not convinced that my planned route was the absolute shortest it could be (and it definitely wasn’t with the extra mileage I had to walk during the adventure) but after several iterations I think I was reasonably close – it was definitely shorter than the shortest route that I could calculate using a trial version of some commercial software I downloaded for delivery drivers to calculate their routes.

Other than planning my route I did very little preparation except for purchasing enough food to keep me going for the first 24 hours and packing some warm clothes and other equipment that I would need during the walk.

Day 1 – Thursday 3rd September

Breaking this particular walk down into days might not be the best way to write about it, especially as it was really a walk of two parts (as you may already know if you’ve watched my video), but hopefully it makes this report more readable.

Day 1 started with my wife dropping me off at Richmond Station just before 9:30am and taking this ‘starting photo’ outside Richmond Station.  I was using a photo app that  adds date/time stamp plus other information to every photo as I wanted to have proof that I had visited all stations and be able to show when I reached each station – just in case anyone ever questions whether I really did this.  And assuming that I successfully completed the walk I intended on registering this as a Fastest Known Time on the FKT website and also applying for a record with Guinness Book of Records (incidentally, the fastest time recorded by anyone visiting all 270 tube stations is 15 hours and 45 minutes). Edit: Guinness Book of Records advise that they won’t recognise a record for visiting all tube stations on foot because it isn’t possible to get to Heathrow Terminal 1 on foot.

As you would expect in a five day walk, the first day was reasonably uneventful except for two problems:

  • When I arrived at Heathrow airport terminal 4 I discovered that it was closed due to Covid-19 meaning that the closest I could get to the tube station was the front door to the terminal, about 50 meters from the tube station itself. The FKT website have accepted this as being OK and I am hopeful that Guinness Book of Records will also accept this as otherwise this particular challenge is not possible to complete until terminal 4 re-opens, and the airport authority has no plans to do that in the near future.
  • When I was almost at Uxbridge my phone battery life had gone below 10% and the screen had turned itself off to conserve battery. This meant that I couldn’t see the map to help me find the tube station and I had to stop and recharge the phone enough so that I could turn the screen back on.  I didn’t actually know that the phone had a setting to turn the screen off when the battery power was too low and initially I thought that maybe my phone was about to die, which would mean the end of my walk.

It also started raining soon after I left Uxbridge, but it only rained lightly for no more than an hour, so wasn’t really a problem.

Day 1, or at least Thursday (14 ½ hours), ended with me having visited 31 of the most westerly stations and heading towards Chesham at the end of the Metropolitan line.

Day 2 – Friday 4th September

I passed under the M25 at about 1:20am heading towards Chorleywood.  I recognised the road I was on from my two walks circumnavigating the M25 motorway on 2016 and 2017.  I often notice this when I’m out training.  I walk down a road and recognise it even although it might have been years since the last time I was there.

The stations were reasonably spread out and it was taking me 30 to 60 minutes between each station but this was nothing compared to the three hours it would take me to get from Chesham (station 37) to Watford (station 38), where I stopped for breakfast, and then another two hours through to Stanmore (station 39).

My plan had always been to visit all the outer stations first and I had now visited most of the stations to the west of London.  Next up were the tube stations across the north of London before the stations to the east and south before eventually arriving in London itself on Sunday or Monday.  I figured that it would be easier mentally if I left all the inner-city tube stations to last.

I also planned on having my first sleep on Friday afternoon, and then sleeping for a few hours each afternoon for the remainder of the walk.  I wanted to do this walk as a solo self-supported adventure which meant I couldn’t accept help from anyone during the walk, and therefore needed to sleep rough along the way.  For this reason, I also decided that I would use the walk as a fundraiser for Centrepoint, a charity that helps homeless youth in the UK, and I ended up raising over £2,000 for them.

But when I stopped for my first sleep in a park between Dollis Hill and Neasden on Friday afternoon, I found that I couldn’t sleep.  This was partially due to two foreign speaking people sitting down not too far away from me, lighting up a joint and carrying on a loud conversation in their own language, and partially because I just wasn’t ready for sleep.  After resting for about an hour I decided to start walking again and I had another unsuccessful attempt at sleeping a few stations later.

The problem with not sleeping on Friday afternoon was that I knew that it would get too cold to sleep outside overnight.  I had some warm clothing, but to stop and sleep outside, even with the warm clothing on, would be too cold and I wasn’t prepared to sleep anywhere that wasn’t in the open due to safety reasons.

Day 2 ended at Highgate, station 77, almost exactly 200km (124 miles) into my adventure.  When I planned my route I estimated that, with a small allowance for getting lost and detours, the total distance would be around 500km (310 miles).  This meant that I had covered 40% of the total estimated distance but only visited 28% of the 270 stations so far.

Day 3 – Saturday 5th September

I have done a few walks where I haven’t slept for 40+ hours but I was starting to get tired now.  It was also raining lightly on and off so even if I had found somewhere safe to sleep the weather wasn’t going to let me sleep for too long.

Sofabed found during London tube station walk

Somewhere between High Barnet and Cockfosters (outside number 62 Station Road, New Barnet, according to the location stamp on the photo) I came across a sofa that someone had left outside their house and I thought that perhaps if I took the squabs off the sofa and turned them over, I could sleep on the dry side of them for a little while.  To my surprise the sofa turned out to be a sofa-bed and I pulled it out and lay down on it.  I think I may have slept for 10 minutes and in total I was there for 20 minutes before I had to start moving in order to warm up again.

And then at about 5:30am, as I was entering Southgate I came across an outdoor pub that not only had a roof but also padded bench seats.  I lay down on one of the seats and may have slept for 45 minutes, but if I did sleep it was a restless sleep as I remember constantly making sure that I didn’t fall off the seat.  My watch shows that I was stopped for about an hour and I definitely felt better after my ‘sleep’.

When I got going again, I was kind of just going through the motions.  I knew what I was doing but it was almost like an out-of-body experience as I walked from one station to the next, taking one selfie after the other.

On my phone I had a list of all the tube stations, in the order I needed to visit them, and as I got to each station I deleted the station from the notepad file so as to easily keep track of where I was going.  Against Bounds Green I also had a reminder that a friend in New Zealand came from Bounds Green and I took some photos of the local school and shops which I sent to her via facebook.

By late morning I was ready for a sleep but even in sunny parks the grass was still wet from the overnight rain and I was too sore to try sleeping on a park bench, although in hindsight I probably should have tried.

Eventually near Wanstead I found a park with a nice dry bit of grass and sat down and took my shoes and socks off so that my feet could air while I tried sleeping again.  I think I may have managed another 45 minutes sleep but woke up in the shade and feeling cold again.  I drained my blisters, taped my feet and put on a clean pair of socks, and then resumed walking.

By the time I arrived in Loughton (station 106), the last station before crossing the M25 again heading towards Epping, I was craving pizza – until I saw a KFC.  I stopped for an early dinner and a short rest, which turned out to be a good idea  as immediately after Loughton was a long, steep uphill slog, and I didn’t actually pass another suitable fast food place until the next morning (other than the pizza shop about 50 meters up the road from KFC).

I arrived in Epping just before 8pm and then headed south back towards north east London.  Fortunately, I enjoy walking at night because the stations were well spread out.  I was also feeling good despite the serious lack of sleep I had had so far – less than two hours sleep in the 2 ½ days I had been walking.

By the end of day 3 I had walked another 90km (56 miles) and was almost at station 112.

Day 4 – Sunday 6th September

Just after midnight I stopped at a petrol station to buy a drink and while waiting to be served I plugged my phone in to my portable USB charger to recharge as the remaining battery life was getting low again.  But when I got to the next tube station I noticed that the phone wasn’t charging.  I was carrying two heavy duty USB chargers, weighing 500 grams each (so about 1/7th of the total weight I was carrying with 1 litre of water being another 1/7th) and switched to the second charger.  But my phone still wouldn’t charge!

I checked the USB chargers by charging my watch.  That charged OK, so I made the assumption that it was the phone charging cable that wasn’t working and walked back to the petrol station to see if they sold charging cables.  Fortunately they did, and even more fortunately, the new cable worked.  I was so reliant on my phone, both for the list of stations to visit and the order to visit them in, and also for navigation using Google Maps.  If my phone had died, my walk would have been over.

A short while later I arrived at Newbury Park tube station which was the last station I needed to visit on the Central line.  From memory the station was quite busy – it was 1:20am on Sunday morning – so I quickly took my selfie and then got on my way again, wanting to avoid any drunken locals.  This time I was heading south east to Upminster Bridge and then Upminster at the east end of the District Line.  It was another long slog taking over 2 ½ hours to cover just over 14km but given that I had now been walking for over 65 hours on very little sleep I was maintaining a good pace.

In order to get to the very end of the District Line, Upminster, I had to pass the Upminster Bridge tube station which I would also pass again on my way west back towards London.  I took a selfie outside Upminster Bridge at 4:03am and then 54 minutes later I arrived at Upminster station, just 1 mile down the road.  In between times I came across a block of houses that had garages underneath (at road level) without garage doors.  One was completely empty.  One had security lights that came on when I went to go inside, and the middle one had a car in front of it.

Garages in Upminster

I decided that the first one would make a good place to try and sleep and lay down on the hard, cold concrete floor at the back of the garage.  It turned out that hard cold concrete and sleep don’t go together.  It was another unsuccessful attempt at sleeping, but a few minutes off my feet which was much needed.

The fact that it took me 54 minutes to walk 1 mile indicates that I was probably resting for about 30-35 minutes and that made an incredible difference.  That and the knowledge that I was now heading towards London.  My kilometre split times on Strava don’t show it, but for the next few hours I felt like I was flying – although in reality my fastest kilometre was 10 minutes and 17 seconds!

I can’t remember which came next.  Soon after daylight I stopped and brought some breakfast – just some yoghurt – from a shop I passed.  And either just before or after that I had a weird sensation of déjà vu – in that I felt like I had been here before.  In a way I had been here before.  In 2016 I walked the District Line but in the opposite direction to what I was doing now, so I hadn’t actually seen what I was seeing in front of me, as it has been behind me last time.

I had the same sense of déjà vu last year a few hours before things started to go wrong for me in the Lon Las Ultra in Wales, but this time I was actually feeling good and having déjà vu.  I’ve heard about other ultra-distance athletes experiencing déjà vu during multi-day events, so I guess it isn’t uncommon. I was still aware enough to know that something wasn’t right though, but as I have since discovered, I wasn’t aware enough to do anything about it – like eat some foot perhaps.

Anyway, I continued walking, feeling good/reasonable most of the time and I arrived in Stratford at 10am.  It was a beautiful sunny morning and I decided that it would be a great idea to go into the Olympic Park and lie down in the sun for a sleep.  Dumb idea!  If you want to sleep, find somewhere away from people, not where tourists and locals are going to walk past you every few minutes.

As it turned out, when I lay down my legs decided that they were too sore to sleep and I couldn’t get comfortable, so after resting for about an hour I decided to start walking again.

This time the rest had had the opposite affect to my rest in Upminster.  I felt terrible and really struggled.

My mind started to get confused.  I ended up at a DLR station called Star Line but was convinced that I was at Canning Town (which is a combined tube and DLR station) and I started to think that perhaps Transport For London and renamed the DLR to Star Line as a part of the Cross Rail construction project.  I crossed from one side of the station to the other, and back, at least twice.  But I couldn’t find a sign saying Canning Town.  I eventually checked Google Maps and found that I wasn’t yet at Canning Town.

And then when I finally got to Canning Town I couldn’t work out how on earth I was supposed to get from one side of the station to the other as per the Google Maps navigation to get through to the next station.

Add to that, I had just discovered that the Greenwich foot tunnel which should take me through under the Thames to North Greenwich was currently closed in the weekends due to Covid, and therefore I was going to have to make a change to my route and go the long way to North Greenwich, and my mind was really starting to fall apart.

Since finishing I have also realised that I didn’t eat much/anything at all on Sunday other than the yoghurt I purchased at around about 7am’ish for breakfast.  I used my phone to pay for all my food purchases throughout the walk as that was much easier than trying to deal with physical money, and my bank statement only shows the one purchase, for £1 on Sunday.  I think/hope that I ate something, but it would have only been small snacks and maybe some fruit that I was still carrying from last time I had stopped to buy supplies on Saturday.

I do remember stopping at a pizza place in the east end on Sunday afternoon, but they told me the pizza would take 30 minutes to cook and I didn’t want to wait.

If I had been able to think clearly enough to stop and eat, what happened on Sunday afternoon/evening may not have happened.  But that is easy to say now, two weeks later.

After leaving Canning Town I walked through to Canary Wharf where I again got totally confused, partially due to some road closures, and then from there via the east end stations through to the Rotherhithe Tunnel, a mile long car tunnel which would take me through to the Canada Water tube station on the south side of the Thames.

After emerging from the tunnel I found another park and again, I lay down in the sun in the hope of getting some sleep.  However, the moment I stopped walking and lay down my whole body started shaking uncontrollably as if I was freezing cold.  There was no way I was going to be able to sleep, and I also knew that there was probably no way I would be able to last another night without sleep.

I called my wife, Ruth, and told her about the situation.  She said that I was going to have to come home and try and get some proper sleep in my own bed – which made sense to me – but as I felt good’ish when I was walking I suggested that I walk to North Greenwich first and from there I would walk to Wimbledon where she could collect me.  Due to Covid I wasn’t too keen on taking public transport to get home, and it would take her hours to drive to where I was.  The idea made sense to me, and I convinced Ruth that I would be in Wimbledon no later than midnight and would call her when I was almost there.

That was at about 7:30pm.  1 ¾ hours later I had arrived at North Greenwich (6km in the opposite direction to Wimbledon), and it was then that I realised that there was no way I would get to Wimbledon by midnight.

My walking felt extremely slow now, and I was ready to give up completely.  I eventually made it back to the Canada Water tube station at 10:50pm and stopped my watch, deciding that that was enough.  My walk was over!

Total mileage 377km/234 miles. 139 tube stations visited in 3 days, 15 hours, and 20 minutes.

I caught the tube from Canada Water to Waterloo and the train home to Richmond from where my son Zac collected me and took me home.

As soon as I got home, I had a shower than then went to bed.  And surprise, surprise.  I slept for 9 hours!

Day 5 – Monday 7th September

When I stopped at Canada Water tube station on Sunday night, I thought my attempt to visit all 270 tube stations was finished.  I was mentally exhausted and physically tired.

But after a good sleep, and with a little prompting from Ruth I decided that I would continue what I had set out to do.  At that stage I think I had raised about £800/£900 for Centrepoint and I didn’t want to let down those people who had donated.  And I also knew deep down that I would be disappointed in myself if I didn’t continue.

I slept another 3 hours in the afternoon and then after dinner Zac took me back to Richmond station and I made the return trip back to Canada Water tube station arriving at about 10:30pm.

I waited until 10:50pm as, being a little OCD, I thought it would be best to resume walking exactly 24 hours after I had stopped.

It only took 20 minutes to walk through to Bermondsey tube station and by midnight I had passed Southwark tube station and was almost at Waterloo.

Total distance on Monday – just 5km.  Total distance since the beginning – 382km. 143 tube stations visited.

Day 6 – Tuesday 8th September

I wasn’t walking fast but I enjoyed walking through the night.  I arrived at Wimbledon tube station (station number 162) a little after 4am – this was the station that I thought I could have got to by midnight on Sunday night when talking to Ruth via phone at 7:30pm on Sunday.  Obviously that estimate was way off, even if I hadn’t had the 24 hour break.

My first rest was just before 6am when I sat down in a park between Parsons Green and Fulham Broadway.  On Friday afternoon I had sent an email to everyone at work telling them about my fundraising for Centrepoint and I thought I would send them an update as many of the donations I had received had come from my work colleagues.  The email achieved the result I wanted and donations from my work colleagues started coming in again on Tuesday.  Watching the donations grow helped with my motivation throughout the final 24 hours.

I was now in London and the distance between tube stations was measured in hundreds of meters rather than kiometers.

All entrances to London City are marked by a dragon
All entrances to London City are marked by a dragon

By 10:50am, 12 hours after resuming, I had walked another 60km (37 miles) and visited 55 tube stations.  Mentally I was feeling good.  Physically I was feeling OK.  I couldn’t walk any faster than I was, but I didn’t need to.  The important thing was that I was walking with the knowledge that I would finish this adventure.

Again, it was a nice sunny day and when I arrived at Leicester Square just after 3pm I decided to have one last long rest and sit down in the sun outside Burger King with my feet up.

Lunch in Leicester Square during my London tube station walk

I could have sat there all afternoon but after about half an hour I got moving again.

Going into the night I did have one moment where I was a little concerned for my safety.  I can’t remember exactly where it was.  Somewhere around the Ladbrook Grove or Latimer Road tube stations Google Maps took me through a housing estate and I walked past a group of young people who looked a bit menacing.  Fortunately they were more interested in their skateboards than me, but over the whole walk that was the only time that I had any concerns about safety, and I suspect I walked through a number of other suburbs that may not be 100% safe.

Just before midnight I arrived at Hammersmith tube stations – two stations, one for the District and Piccadilly lines and the other across the road for the Hammersmith & City and Circle lines.

It was at this stage that I was finally able to start thinking about how far, or how little, I had to go.  Only 20 stations (including Hammersmith) and less than 30km (19 miles).

I have learnt over the years that in any long distance walk you cannot afford to think about how far you have to go, or even how far you have been.  You need to focus only on the here and now so as not to be overwhelmed by the overall distance/time of the walk.  Up until now, as much as possible, I had focussed on one tube station at a time.  Nothing more.  But now, I was on the home straight!

Day 6 totals: 252 tube stations now visited. Total mileage 496km (308 miles)

Day 7 – Wednesday 9th September

I had started my walk the previous Thursday morning, and it was now Wednesday.  One awesome week!

But it wasn’t over yet.  There were still another 18 tube stations to visit and as I discovered when trying to find the North Acton tube station, things could still go wrong.  Google Maps doesn’t seem to know that cemeteries are often locked at night, and at about 2:15am it wanted me to walk through a cemetery on the way to the tube station.  Eventually I found my way around the cemetery and more importantly I was now counting down – only 8 stations to go!

It’s not over until it’s over though, and the last 3km (2 miles) from Kew Gardens through to Richmond was a real struggle.  I was walking at a reasonable speed but I was falling asleep on my feet and had to have several micro sleeps where I simply stopped walking and leaned against a fence with my eyes closed for 20 to 30 seconds.  If I hadn’t of been so close to the finish I would have sat down for a rest, but I was almost there!

The finish!

The finish was an anti-climax.  As I approached Richmond Station I saw on the electronic sign at the bus stop that my bus from Richmond to home was only 1 minute away.  So I quickly walked over to where I had started the previous Thursday morning, stopped my watch, and took a ‘finisher’s selfie’, then walked back to the bus stop, put my face mask on, and got on the bus for the short trip home.

Total time: 5 days, 20 hours, 18 minutes, and 3 seconds.

Total distance: 523km / 325 miles

Total tube stations visited: 270

Total money raised for Centrepoint: over £2,000

Finish of my London tube station walk
My ‘finishers photo’

 

And when I got home everyone was asleep.  It was only just after 6am.  I had a shower and went to bed.

Some final thoughts:

  • I can go faster.
    Most of the races, especially the race-walking races, that I want to do are in Europe and therefore unavailable to UK based athletes during the current crisis. If that continues into next summer, I would like to have another attempt at this walk.  Next time I will do it with support.  I think if I had people either following me throughout or meeting me at tube stations to feed me, give me everything I need, and if I have some places lined up to sleep when I need sleep, and I don’t need to carry 7 kilograms of food, water and equipment, I think I could complete this walk in under 100 hours, maybe inside 4 days.
  • In total, my watch recorded the walk as being a total of 538km (334 miles) but this included 4km recorded when I had to catch the bus from Bath Road to Heathrow Central bus stop and return in order to visit the tube station within the airport terminal – the only tube station not accessible by foot because it is within the airport parameter.  And it also includes some additional mileage that my watch was recording when I was inside shops buying food.  By my calculations the watch recorded an additional 10-11km that I didn’t walk (plus the 4km) so my estimate is that total distance walked was 523km (325 miles).
    My walk on Strava can be viewed here – part 1, and part 2.
  • Today, I’ve used Google Maps to compare the route I had intended to take to get to the North Greenwich tube station to the route I actually took, and there is only a 3km (2 2 mile) difference. At the time, I thought the detour was adding 10km or more to my journey and that really messed with my mind.
    Ultra-distance events such as this are more about mental strength than physical.  You need both, but as the saying goes, “an ultramarathon is 90% mental, and the other 10% is in your head”