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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
With races still being cancelled throughout most parts of the world the people who organised the first Quarantine Backyard Ultra back in April organised a second on the weekend of 11th and 12th July.
A Backyard Ultra is an elimination race in which all runners (and me as a walker) start together every hour and run/walk a 4.16667 mile (6.706 kiometer) lap before reconvening at the start/finish area ready to start the next lap at the beginning of the next hour. The winner is the person who completes the most laps. Everyone else is a DNF (Did Not Finish).
It isn’t necessarily the fastest athlete who wins. In fact, I won my first race of this type, Last One Standing – England, in 2018 outlasting all runners in 36 hours. As long as you complete your lap (the lap distance of 4.16667 miles being 100 miles divided by 24 hours) within 59 minutes and 59 seconds, you are allowed to start the next lap. If you don’t complete your lap within the hour, or if you complete your lap but decide not to line up for the next one, then you are a DNF.
The original Backyard Ultra was created by the legendary Lazarus Lake who created the first race in his own backyard in Tennessee in the early 2000’s. He named the race after his dog, Big, and called it Big’s Backyard Ultra. There are now hundreds of these races worldwide, or at least there were before Covid-19 came along, and Big’s is considered the world champs.
In April we were in complete lockdown in England which, among other restrictions, meant we were only allowed outside for exercise once per day. I purchased a second-hand treadmill and walked on it until it died after 29 ½ hours, finishing the first Quarantine Backyard Ultra with 29 laps. The winner did an incredible 63!
Now, in July, we are allowed outside as much as we want (in the UK). For me, the second Quarantine Backyard Ultra would therefore be 100% outdoors and in the weeks leading up to the race I measured out three separate courses that I would use during the weekend.
The first was an out and back course that would be in the shade for about 50% of each lap. If it was sunny, my plan was to use that course during the day.
The second was a combination of off-road and river trail which went past my house at about halfway and would enable me to collect additional food/water mid-way through each lap if required.
And the third course was my night-time course, 100% on road with reasonable street lighting meaning I wouldn’t need to wear a headtorch. This course was effectively an out and back with a small loop at each end and passed by house at about 2 ½ kilometers.
The big, and obvious, difference between a real race and a Quarantine (virtual) race is that you are alone in the Quarantine Backyard Ultra and to a certain extent the organisers rely on the honestly of the athlete to complete the required distance on foot themselves and without outside assistance. The rules required us to be connected to a Zoom meeting so that we could be seen starting and finishing our laps, and to upload our GPS maps to Strava at the end of each lap. We were also encouraged to take photos of the distance/time readings on our watches at the end of each lap in case of any challenges as to whether or not we were completing the distance.
To enable this I set up my start/finish area just inside the front door of our house with my laptop connected to the Zoom meeting and showing all comings and goings from our house – both me every hour, and my family as they walked in and out the front door every now and again.
Next to the computer I had a shelving unit that I relocated from upstairs, stocked with all the food I would need for the race and my family periodically refilled my water bottles for me.
Being a virtual worldwide race, the second Quarantine Backyard Ultra started for UK residents at 2pm on Saturday afternoon. It was sunny and around 22 degrees Celsius, so whilst not too hot I decided that the shaded course would be my best option for the first few hours. My intention was to walk through the first afternoon and night taking it easy. I didn’t expect the race to take too much out of me in the first 24 hours by which stage only the serious races would be left. Since the start of May I had been doing another virtual race, the Great Virtual Race Across Tennessee, and had done more mileage in May and June than any other two month period in my life. I knew I had good endurance and was ready for what I thought could be a 48 hour race – although to complete 48 hours I would need to walk 200 miles and my 48 hour PB is only 173 miles from Royan in 2018.
It wasn’t to be that easy though. After just a few kilometers I was suffering from gut pain and after 5km I had to dive into the bushes for some quick relief. At the completion of that first lap I then had to run up two flights of stairs to get to the toilet, finish the business, and get back down to my front door in time to start the second lap at the top of the hour. This was not the way I had expected to start this race!
A few laps later, and another quick run up to our third floor bathroom (we live in a terraced property on the second and third floor) in between laps. I didn’t need this additional mileage and stair climbing!
As well as the 1,200 athletes who entered the Quarantine Backyard Ultra having different start times and different weather conditions depending on where they were in the world, different athletes no doubt had different distances between their start/finish area and their bathroom. When deciding on the courses I would use during the weekend, one of the important factors was the quantity of nearby bushes should I need them. All three courses had plenty of privacy for a number one if needed, but I hadn’t really expected to need anything more than one or two trips upstairs during the whole race, so two in the first few laps was not a good start.
Fortunately, things started to settle down and whilst I continued to have pain in my abdominal area for the first 12-15 hours of the race, I was able to manage things a bit better.
On completion of the first five laps, which had all being relatively easy at an average of just under 55 minutes per lap, my wife gave me a pizza cut into 2×2 inch squares for dinner. The pizza was in a tinfoil container like what you might get from a Chinese takeway. Easy to hold and the small pizza squares were easy to eat while walking. What a fantastic support crew!
I switched to course two with the idea of doing three laps of my alternative day course before dark, just for some variety, and then switching to my night course. Those three laps were all significantly slower, averaging 56 minutes, but in fairness, the course was off-road for a part and on the first of those three laps I was eating dinner, and on the last it was semi-dark.
With 8 laps completed in total, at 10pm I switched to my third course and put in a couple 54 minute laps before finding that my left quadricep muscle was starting to hurt after the short break between laps. So I decided to slow things down a bit to reduce the rest breaks. I really enjoyed the night. 12 hours (50 miles), 15 hours (100km) both came and went. Daylight arrived way too early at around 15 hours and I decided to stay on my night course for a few more hours. It had been reasonably cold overnight and a heavy dew was on the cars and grass. I was feeling good and didn’t want to go on to my off-road course, get my shoes and socks wet, and have to stop to change them between laps.
The only thing that went wrong during the night was that I didn’t eat enough. In most races I like to eat every 30 minutes but I found myself forgetting to eat and am sure there were occasions when I went 90 minutes or more without eating. I think this may have contributed to my downfall later on.
When I completed lap 18 at 8am my wife presented me with a cheese omelette for breakfast. Again, it was cut into small pieces and in another tinfoil dish. I switched to my alternative day course again and consumed breakfast while walking alongside the river. The lap took me a shade over 57 minutes and was my slowest of the race other than one deliberate slow lap in the middle of the night. I put the slow lap down to the fact that I was eating but the following lap was almost as slow.
I was starting to feel the pain that only an ultra-distance athlete know. I wasn’t tired, but I just couldn’t make myself move forward any faster. I switched to my shaded day course in the hope that the change would help me speed up, but it was just starting to get harder and harder to maintain the same speed. I was only on lap 21. It wasn’t meant to be hard yet!
Lap 21 took 56 minutes and lap 22 was a minute slower. I was now finishing after the three minute whistle (to warn runners that the next lap is about to start there is a whistle blown at 3, 2 and 1 minutes before the bell which is run at the start of each new lap) and was now starting to struggle mentally as well. In fact, with the benefit of hindsight, I think I was suffering more mentally than physically now, and my mental weakness was resulting in me walking slower and slower.
I had switched to sugar immediately after breakfast, drinking coke at the end of every lap, and eating chocolate, jelly beans, jelly, etc, but it wasn’t working. Lap 23 took 57 ½ minutes and I told myself that whatever happened, I needed to complete lap 24 in under the hour in order to complete a sub 24 hour 100 miler – the minimum I would consider acceptable for my weekend’s efforts.
In the end lap 24 was to be my last. I just wasn’t mentally strong enough for the race this time around. I finished the lap in 59:06 to complete 100 miles in under 24 hours – the 15th time I have walked 100 miles in under 24 hours, and the 30th time I have walked 100 miles or further in the seven years since my first 24 hour race in October 2013.
Of 1,200 entrants, about 47 of us finished lap 24 but only 36 started lap 25, and two laps later there were only around 25 runners left in the race. I wonder whether I could have kept going for a few more laps if mentally stronger. Perhaps if I had switched to my night course which I think was the fastest of the three courses, I may have made a few more laps. But in reality, I just wasn’t up to it.
I might have built good endurance during lockdown, but I have almost zero speed. Most of my training over the last few months has been done at 8 minutes per kilometer or slower. Faster than the required pace for the race, but with no speedwork in training I was unable to kick in a bit of speed when I needed it to get me going in this race. In most races, when I start to struggle I will listen to some high temp music and use that to speed up my cadence, but my legs are no longer used to a fast turnover and the music didn’t help this time.
After the race my legs were in serious pain, worse than I remember them after any of my previous races. I’m not really sure why they were so sore, but after a good night’s sleep on Sunday they were recovered by the following morning, although it did take me most of the week to fully recover from the race and want to go for another walk.
With plenty of uncertainty about upcoming races I am thinking that rather than planning for an upcoming race, maybe I need an adventure. I don’t know yet, but I’m currently looking at doing something long in August.