This was a new experience for me. As part of my year off from taking triathlons and so on seriously I thought I’d have a go at a bit of ultra-distance running. If there’s one aspect of my triathlons I’d like to improve, it’s my running. I’m not sure that training for an ultra is going to do my running speed any good, but it’ll get me out the door and into some nice long mileages. I’ve often seen runners out on this race in years past and the idea of running down the towpath from Oxford to Henley was appealing – nice and flat, a mostly soft surface, and off the roads.
Training went OK. After I’d recovered from Luton marathon I followed the 50-mile training programme outlined in Relentless Forward Progress. After a diet of 20-hour weeks in ironman training, the 50-mile weeks in this schedule felt pretty easy at times (although hard on my legs) and I often increased the length of the midweek runs, or fitted in a couple of extra indoor rowing sessions in a week. The long weekend runs I found quite tough to start with. I managed to build to a longest of 53km, and most Saturdays I’d be out for at least 25–33km. My left knee had got a bit sore and my right achilles was creaking quite a bit (I’ve had that injury, on and off, since last August!). Running about in the snow, mid-January, hadn’t helped either of them, although it did give me a chance to break in my trail shoes a bit more. Both niggles calmed down a fair bit in the 10-day taper.
In the week before the race the snow had melted and the water had flooded the Thames towpath. This led to a last minute route change from the organisers, and quite a bit more road work, for a route of only 43 miles. I stayed late at work on Friday afternoon so I could print a few maps off in case I needed them the next day. Although there was more road in the re-route I decided to stick with my trail shoes. They’d provide me with some grip on the muddy sections and they aren’t that clumpy on the road. The weather forecast was looking great – sunny and cold – if nothing else.
Walking the mile and a half to the Prince of Wales in Iffley for the 8:30am start my trail shoes were nipping me a bit, a problem I’ve not had before, but then, I’ve never walked any distance in them either. After registering and picking up my number and timing tag I tried a few jogs and they were fine – I was half thinking I’d have to change to the spare road shoes, but they stayed in my rucksac to be transported to the finish. I had a small bumbag to carry a headtorch, a few spare gels, the route sheet, and some Zero electrolyte tabs to put in my Nathan hand-held bottle as I went round.
After a ten-minute delay we were off. A gentle jog at first, negotiating all the twists and turns of the towpath. Our feet were soaked in cold water within the first half-mile – I was hoping that wouldn’t bring on blisters – and then it was out on to the roads through Radley and Abingdon, where the Parkrun was just finishing. At the first checkpoint near Culham Lock, I stopped for a gel and to top up my bottle and grabbed half a slice of cake, munching it on the move. I was feeling pretty comfortable, jogging along at a conversational pace.
Video of the start, I’m running through the shot in about 0:36: YouTube
After Culham I found myself running with a couple of others – Wendy, a veteran of two 100-mile events last year, and Simon, who’d only done one 50km race last year. We negotiated the mud around Long Wittenham, but it was a struggle and I could feel I was working too hard here, and then after bit more road some really heavy muddy sections on the stretch to Shillingford Bridge. I walked most of the mud here. Although I had trail shoes on I didn’t want to risk turning an ankle. Coming into the second checkpoint at Benson I was still feeling OK. I stopped for more cake and a top-up of my bottles. Matt C was here, from Didcot. He’d done the Parkrun and it was good to have a quick chat while I topped up my supplies.
I was soon on my way. More road-bashing to Goring. The sun was getting quite warm now and I unzipped my top.
Photo from the 30km point, look at the state of my shoes!
I could see Simon up ahead and eventually he stopped at the side of the road near South Stoke to pass a layer to his partner who’d driven up, and I caught him. I think he thought I’d leap-frogged ahead of him at the last checkpoint. We ran into Goring together. There was a car parked half on the pavement. I went to the inside of it and Simon ran around the road side. As I passed it the door sprang open and caught me full in the chest with a terrific crack. The young lad was apologetic, but I was severely winded. I walked up the road for a minute with Simon to get my breath back before we jogged the last half mile into checkpoint 3.
We stopped for more cake and gels and another bottle top up before I said “let’s go” and we were on our way again. It took a minute or two to get going properly – our legs were starting to get tired of the road. But we were soon climbing a little onto a bridepath which was much softer underfoot. We caught up with Paul Ali (“Avon” from the Fetch forum) and one other guy and I was happy to let them lead for a bit through the wooded muddy sections. The marathon distance passed somewhere along here, in about 3h45. Once the surface improved a bit, I stepped out again and led away from two others into Whitchurch and Pangbourne.
It was here I made a route-error. We were missing out the Thames Path here again and instead of turning left on the road for Reading, I turned right. There had been a left/right error at this point in the temporary route sheet mailed out on Thursday which’d been corrected on the one handed out on the day, but I’d not noticed. I ran about 2.6km in the wrong direction before I realised the mistake I’d made. Unfortunately, two other runners had followed me. I felt bad for them as I doubled-back.
Back on the correct route I was catching and passing small groups of slower runners all the time, but coming into checkpoint 4 at Purley I was starting to feel tired and the enormity of the task left was starting to play on my mind. That inadvertent detour hadn’t helped. I asked a marshall how far it was to the next CP, and they said 8 miles. That seemed like quite a long way, but I set out and soon caught a few and passed a few more runners. I was looking out for signs to the Thames Path off the road here and must’ve missed the first one. When I got to the second, a group of runners were coming back up the path from that direction – they didn’t think it was the right way (although looking at the map later, they were mistaken, it was correct – maybe it was flooded here and they didn’t fancy it?). I pressed on down the road to the next major left turn where I knew I’d be able to pick up the towpath to Caversham Bridge for sure. My stride had dropped to little more than a gentle jog now, and a stronger runner who I’d been alongside earlier, leaving the checkpoint, passed me easily. I was still passing a few others though.
After Reading the towpath was occasionally underwater. Just ankle-deep at first, but then as we got further away from the town and the path became more rural, the fields were completely underwater in places, where they weren’t they were heavy with mud. At one point I found myself wading shin-deep through water for about 50 metres. It wasn’t pleasant and I was worried what state my feet’d be in afterwards, but at the same time I knew checkpoint 5 was just around the corner and I’d be on the home stretch.
A photo of one of the worst bits of flooding, from the Runner’s World forum
At checkpoint 5, next to Sonning Bridge, I stopped for a final refill of Zero and some cake and walked out across the bridge. I’d caught someone up here and jogged the first half mile around Sonning Eye with them but they had stronger legs and once we’d crossed the A4155 he disappeared up the road. There was a bit of an uphill drag to Binfield Heath. Nothing much of a hill really but it reduced me to a jog/walk; I really didn’t have much energy left. My left knee was sore and my right ankle/achilles was complaining a bit. I could feel a bit of a blister developing on a toe of my right foot and my armpits were sore where my baselayer was rubbing. I didn’t care though, if I just kept moving forward, I’d finish in daylight, my original target.
Over the top there were more bridlepaths to navigate. I made a slight route error at a path junction and ended up on a private driveway, but I was soon back on the correct path and jogging into Henley with two or three other runners who’d appeared from nowhere. I realised I was just going to get under 7 hours and that gave me the motivation to keep moving in that last mile or so. I was relieved to cross the line, dib my timing chip for the last time and get that finisher’s medal. Paul Ali was here, and so was Wendy. They’d finished about 10 minutes before me, having made a route error on the last stage and run 44 miles. I’d clocked 46.5 miles in the end, nearly the official old distance of the Thames Trot before all the re-routing (47 miles, I think).
I stopped for some sweet tea and a few mini-pork pies before collecting my change of clothes and heading to the station for my train back to Oxford. Tired, but very happy with my efforts. Strangely, although I was knackered it took a couple of nights before I got a decent sleep. My right achilles is very stiff and sore – it needs a rest. I reckon it’ll take me a couple of weeks at least to get over this but I’m already thinking about doing another ultra later in the year, it was a good adventure.
[Here’s someone else’s take on the day’s running, from Run247.com]