Wimborne Athletic Club

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Thames Path 50 Mile Ultra – 19th January 2008     

I had run this race a couple of times before, last year after a period of rain but never after the deluge that had hit the Thames Valley (and other places) in the previous couple of weeks. I had targeted myself a time of 10 hours to finish to allow for water and food stops and other distractions such as mud. We were all also carrying a backpack with compulsory equipment and food and drinks.

I arrived at the start in Reading and straightaway we could look down the river to the fields in the distance. Unfortunately we could not see the fields as they were underwater. Neither could we see the riverbank. The water was a muddy brown and we could not tell if it was 2 inches or 20 feet deep which would make it interesting.

Challenging conditions along the Thames

The pre-race briefing was well attended and listened to. There were 4 checkpoints on the route, we would be expected to check in at each. However due to the state of the course and the amount of water we would have to arrange our own detours around any dangerous areas. Personally I wasn’t too bothered, I knew the route well and was confident of being able to circumnavigate a few fields and wasn’t worried about getting my feet wet. It should be good fun, particularly as it was raining and blowing a gale!

At 9am we all set off across the meadows. I had planned to start off conservatively and to pace myself. Most of the first 3 miles were underwater with brief patches of mud (land). Most of the time the water was only just past knee height - so was wadeable - and the worst it did was slow us down and freeze our feet and legs. Various runners would go in different directions at odd times to find better routes along fields and side roads but I elected to stay along the river with most people.

After about 3 miles we reached the first crossing at Sonning Bridge. As we waded up to the bridge I had the alarming sight of several runners running back towards me from the other side. Apparently they had been wading along the other bank when the front one of their number had been submerged, so had decided it was unsafe to continue and had come back to find another route. Lots of maps were dug out and there was a mass dispersion as people went in all directions. I chose to follow the majority again and went via the road which after a turn actually went in the opposite direction to the one we were aiming for! After a mile or so we all disappeared down a side road and after a few hundred yards where faced with more runners coming the opposite way – the road was blocked by floods! It has to be said that the countryside as far as you could see was underwater and there was no obvious route out of it. By this time I had given up any hopes of a sensible time and just wanted to finish – all this with over 45 miles to go!

Eventually there was a signpost to Henley which was near our first checkpoint - we followed it. The road then took us over a few hills before descending into Shiplake and eventually Henley-on-Thames. I ran this part faster than I should and felt I may pay for it later on. Henley was our next crossing and as we crossed I could see the opposite bank, or what was on it sticking up from the water. One or two runners were paddling along the side so I decided to have a go. The path was impassable, so I and a lot of others picked our ways across country finding little islands of muddy land in places. As we neared the next checkpoint we reached a fence barrier which runners were struggling to climb over as it involved wading into water knee deep and then attempting to clamber over. I thought that if I moved further along the fence to a small gap I could get round easier so I waded out further and in the space of two steps found myself up to my waist in freezing, muddy, water - much to the amusement of the French runners behind me. Unfortunately in trying to extract myself I had to push down into the mud and ended up chest deep. I wobbled out absolutely drenched and decided then that it couldn’t get any worse so I would now try to finish as soon as possible as it was starting to wear me down mentally - and I’d only done 10 miles! The first check point was just around the corner, I ran straight through it and followed a couple of other runners up the road.

The next checkpoint is at Marlow but on the other side of the river. I used the advice of other competitors for a bit but was getting a bit cheesed off so dug out my own map and decided to be the master of my own destiny. I managed to work out a route using roads to get to the next checkpoint. Luckily my knowledge of the river crossings made it easier for me to plan and I set off along the roads. The next 8 miles or so involved making my way to Marlow along a dual carriageway where I crossed the bridge and found the checkpoint. I asked advice as to the best route to the next checkpoint at Maidenhead but the marshals were unwilling to recommend a route.

I followed the river path back on the original route for a few hundred knee-deep yards before I saw the familiar sight of runners coming the opposite way – it was only neck deep further on … not ideal! I turned around and trudged back to the checkpoint whilst checking the map. The countryside all around was underwater and I couldn’t see which way to go. I eventually decided to re-cross the river via a road bridge and try a side road on the other side. Luckily this road was low lying but dry and led to a steep, large hill. I chose not to use the zigzag road up the hill, but went straight up through the woods which was a lot quicker. Once at the top there was a long downhill and straight run along roads into Cookham from where I decided to take the road and not the path into Maidenhead. Again I was able to keep up a reasonable speed but this was a tough part of the race as I was tiring and spending more time running alone as people were coming and going in all directions following their own routes.

Once I reached Maidenhead I was able to get back on the Thames Path again to the checkpoint. I only stopped long enough to refill my bottles before carrying on along a very muddy path. I was cheered by the sight of several other runners coming the other way, they had misjudged the crossings and were working their way back to the checkpoints, perhaps others were having a worse day than me. I still had 20+ miles to go but despite my tiredness was starting to feel better – and the rain had stopped!

I followed the mud along to Eton and then past Windsor Castle, waved to Auntie Liz and then onto Datchet. From here the path was still muddy but runnable. I saw my elusive support crew at Old Windsor, carried on and then got to the checkpoint at 38 miles and sat down for 5 minutes. They had a big tub of Jelly Bellies and I had to try and sample all flavours before I left, in the end I settled for a handful and walked on for a bit.

Runnymede was a mudbath, but by this time I wasn’t bothered, I managed to build up a reasonable pace as I ran towards Staines. I passed several runners along this part and eventually hooked up with a chap from Liverpool called Guy who was running his first ultra. We dragged each other along for a bit and kept each other going. After Staines it got dark very quickly and we needed our headtorches for the rest of the run. The river bank towards Chertsey was flooded so it was back to the roads again but we were going well.

We both finished strongly and were both pleased to finish well. My GPS measured the full 50 miles so I was even more chuffed to beat last years time by 48 minutes. The hotel at the finish had given us use of their leisure centre, including clean towels and warm showers, which were welcome. I am doing another version of this race in a few weeks so I hope the waters have receded by then! 237 entries, 169 starters, 154 finishers, 0 drownings, I was 42nd in 8 hours 36 minutes. 

Andy Horsley


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