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