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Thames Ring 250 – 24 to 27 June 2015

Andy Horsley reports

This race is run every two years. It starts in Streatley, follows the Thames Path into London where the route picks up the Grand Union Canal northwards until it meets the Oxford Canal from where it heads south to Oxford, back onto the Thames and finishes in Goring on Thames, making a complete ring. The total distance is officially 250 miles but actual distance is about 10 miles longer due to crossings, detours and route changes. It is known as England's longest non-stop trail race and my aim was solely to finish inside the cut-off (100 hours or 4 days and 4 hours).

I had not been able to run this race previously due to personal circumstances and wasn't sure I'd want to run it in two years time so signed up for this one. I completed the Grand Union Canal Race (145 miles) again successfully four weeks previously so was as ready for it as I could be. My aim was to finish within the cut-offs.

There were 40 runners entered, many of whom I knew from previous exploits. I drove up on the Wednesday morning to the registration area at Goring scout hut. We were allowed two kit bags which would be transported for us to the checkpoints, these contained spare kit, food and bits as required. In addition we all had a back pack which contained all the compulsory kit which we had to have with us at all times. The kit check was thorough which was reassuring, then we were issued with a number and a tracker which was attached to our back packs and activated. We handed over our kit bags and mingled around trying to pass the time before the start. There was a lot of gallow humour and banter regarding all our possible chances but in reality no-one knew how they would do due to the enormous size of the task. All we knew was that it was hot out and likely to stay that way for most of the race.

While registration was going on, presentations were made to Javed and Ernie who had already completed a lap of the course as part of a planned double attempt.

Having a tracker would be a new thing for me and hopefully make things safer for the organisers and more interesting for any interested spectators. At about 9.30, Lindley the Race Director directed us down to the start area for a briefing at the Village Hall. As it was over a mile away I managed to grab a lift from Paul Stout who had popped over to watch the start, I didn't want to add any extra distance on. Most people walked down slowly.

Start – CP1 Hurley 27.25 miles

Following the safety briefing, which was brief, as everyone there was experienced in long distance running, Lindley sounded the klaxon and we all jogged off towards the river. One or two obviously went faster than the rest but most of us started slowly. The weather was warm, sunny and felt very humid and within a short time I was sweating. Because of this I started drinking lots and drinking early, I had two 500ml bottles, one sports drink, one electrolyte as well as a bladder with water in.

As I jogged along I chatted briefly with several runners before settling down into a comfortable pace which coincided on and off with Karen Hathaway and Mick Barnes for the first hour or so. This felt easy but I knew it should do and after an hour I took my first planned walk break and they went ahead. This coincided with the route turning away from the Thames for a while and requiring a bit of navigation. Some runners behind also caught up and passed me which didn't worry me with 240+ miles to go, I needed to try and stick to my own race plan and conserve energy. It was good to see Luke Ashton looking strong and also Ian Holmes and Phil Smith.

After my break I started running again and found myself running with Phil Smith. We maintained a steady run/walk strategy together and the miles slowly went by. About 11 miles in we passed through Reading and got a bit confused at a small diversion but worked it out after jumping a fence. Shortly afterwards we saw Paul Ali lurking on the tow path with his camera. He was the first “spectator” we had seen and was nice to see a friendly face and get some verbal abuse.

After Reading the Thames path follows the river quite closely for a while. We crossed the river at Sonning and shortly afterwards the path turns away from the river for a bit before rejoining just before Henley. The weather was warm and humid and we were both drinking a lot so were pleased to find a cold water tap just before Henley Bridge. It was now afternoon. We stopped to fill our bottles, wash ourselves down and wet our hats and buffs to keep cool. After the bridge the path follows the regatta course and preparations were in full swing for the upcoming regatta, luckily we passed through easily. After that the path winds round through fields and meadows and even over the odd small hill until we crossed the river again at Hurley. Another convenient water stop was found before we crossed back over and arrived at the checkpoint in a car park after just over 5 hours of running. We sat down gratefully in some chairs and our bags were brought to us.

CP1 Hurley – CP2 Chertsey 27.80 miles (55.05 total)

My plan from the start was to try not to spend too long at each checkpoint. I filled my bottles, topped up my snacks, grabbed a bottle of coke and walked out of the checkpoint within a few minutes. Phil was struggling with a blister so stayed to get it seen to. It was very warm so I walked briskly until I had downed my coke and then started running again, this time on my own.

The path soon crossed over the Thames again and then went through Marlow which required a bit of navigation through some alleyways. Having negotiated that successfully, I carried on until the next crossing at Bourne End. From here the path again turns away from the river at Cookham where there was a very convenient toilet block. Then it was back to the river and the path into Maidenhead. By now I was really hot, the weather was so humid and I needed to cool down. You can imagine my delight when I came across an ice cream kiosk, cheerfully manned by an Italian lady. The two calippos I bought didn't even touch the sides but cooled me a little.

Another crossing at Maidenhead bridge and I was back out into the countryside again following the winding river until I got to Windsor a few miles later. It was really busy here on a warm late afternoon and it would have been tempting to stop at one of the many cafes around. After dodging lots of swans and people the path goes back out into the country again. At this point I realised I had run out of water completely, stupidly I should have paused in Windsor to fill up. However I carried on thinking there would be several more water taps on the river, there wasn't.

About 3 miles later I saw another familiar face loitering outside a pub. It was my dad who had been following the tracker and come out to watch. It didn't take much persuasion to drag him into the pub and I downed a pint of coke as quickly as I could which was hard work. As the pub was packed I wasn't able to fill my bottles but the coke should keep me going. I walked on trying to keep the liquid down as it was fizzy but I succeeded. I thought I must have been passed by several runners during my brief stop but it seems I wasn't as everyone was very spread out now.

I crossed Runnymede, passed Egham, Staines and found a water tap a few miles later at Penton Hook. By now I had slowed a lot, it was early evening and I was struggling with the heat, lack of fluid and tiredness. I filled my bottles and had a bit of a cooling wash and felt better. The checkpoint was only a couple of miles further on. Pete Summers caught me up here and looked to be moving really well, we were both just looking to finish this event. We entered the checkpoint at Chertsey Bridge together and I had another welcome sit down.

CP2 Chertsey – CP3 Yiewsley 27.2 miles (82.25 total)

Another briefish stop which followed the same pattern, top up on food and drink, grab something to eat and leave. I was slightly delayed by chatting with Lindley but it was good to hear how others were doing. This time I took some caffeine tablets to help me stay awake as it was about to get dark and I also grabbed a Mars drink to walk on with as a treat. I took some extra clothing for the night although it was still very warm. The next section I was familiar with as I had recced it a couple of weeks before.

Shortly after I left the checkpoint I was caught up again by Pete. We travelled on and off together through the next few miles through Shepperton, Walton, Hampton Court and Kingston before he went ahead. Pete was moving better than me and although struggling with a back problem was running faster in between stretches. I was pleased to see that Kingston’s nightlife was quiet this evening which had been one of my concerns. However between Teddington and Richmond there were a few youths out “celebrating” in their cars on the river bank which gave me a good incentive to keep going. Richmond itself was quite busy but uneventful and it was nice to confidently follow the path without any navigational issues. Shortly after, the route turns away from the river and crosses Syon Park to Brentford from where it picks up the Grand Union Canal. After a bit of banter with some lads on their way home I followed the canal path north. I was very familiar with the Grand Union Canal path having run it a few times but nearly always going south so wasn't sure how I would get on going north.

After a couple of miles I heard voices ahead and as I crossed the canal on the first bridge crossing I passed a couple of other runners. I'm not sure who they were but one looked as if he was limping. After checking they were ok I plodded on ahead. The canal then skirts West London, passing Hanwell, Southall and Hayes. This was all uneventful in the early morning hours. Then just as it was getting light I approached the next checkpoint at Yiewsley.

CP3 Yiewsley – CP4 Berkhamsted 23.8 miles (105.85 total)

I got a good welcome again at the checkpoint. Pete was still there sorting himself out and I noticed one or two runners asleep in a nearby tent, at least one of which had pulled out. I sorted out my drinks and snacks, had some checkpoint food and moved on. It was still early morning but I was keen to get moving while it was still cool as it looked like being another hot day. The next section was slightly shorter and navigation would be easier so mentally it felt better, also the next checkpoint would take me over 100 miles which would give me a boost.

Soon after the checkpoint Pete passed me again, he was running more than me so moved ahead fairly quickly. My feet were now hurting and I could feel a large blister forming on the sole of my right foot. As predicted the morning got very warm very quickly and I stopped at every water tap I could find to cool myself off and top up my bottles. The route at this point is quite uninteresting, long stretches of canal towpath with a few boats, broken up by the odd bridge crossing and uphill lock. I passed Uxbridge, Rickmansworth and Watford before passing under the M25 moving away from London.

I got to Hemel Hempstead and passed the 100 mile point of the race at about mid morning. I decided to treat myself to a sit down, a drink and switched on my phone to send out a couple of texts. I sat on a bench in the blazing sunshine and faffed about. 10 minutes later I went to stand up again. I nearly fell over; I was tired, hot, dehydrated and hurting and had just made the mistake of sitting in the sun. I felt faint and very nauseous and struggled to stay upright hanging onto the bench. For about 5/10 minutes I staggered through Hemel, probably looking like a drunk on his way home having spent the night on a canal bank, which I had. I was seriously thinking about jacking it in. The checkpoint was about 5 miles away and I had no cold water but I had no choice but to plod on. Gradually as the pain in my feet numbed and I found another water tap I picked it up and when I rolled into the next checkpoint I felt better and I grabbed my bags and sat down. This time I would take my time here to make sure I was good to go.

CP4 Berkhamsted – CP5 Milton Keynes 24.35 miles (130.20 total)

Brigitte was manning the checkpoint and was brilliant in feeding and watering me, even to the extent of getting me a pint of orange juice and lemonade from the pub next door when it opened. My right foot was in agony and I was persuaded by Maxine to get it strapped up, which she did brilliantly. Then I changed my socks and trainers for more cushioning as I knew my feet were going to take a battering with about 150 miles to go. I was the only runner here at this point. I left feeling rejuvenated but knowing I would have a tough afternoon ahead.

After Berkhamsted the canal climbs slowly to Tring before descending slowly out into the countryside. My foot was painful to start with but gradually numbed, the weather however was the same as yesterday, very hot and humid. The towpath was also a lot more overgrown after Marsworth and was hard underfoot as there had been very little rain. After what seemed like an eternity of wading through grass and dodging tourists I got to Leighton Buzzard where the path improves and there was a convenient Tesco next to the canal. I couldn't find the ice cream cabinet so bought a 6 pack of iced lollies and a couple of large iced coffees. My intention was to walk whilst eating them and share with any runners that caught me up. I sat down for a few minutes to drink a coffee before moving on. I ate the lollies one by one until I had all six, they were good. I saw no other runners during this time.

After several more miles and another water stop at Fenny Stratford I reached the outskirts of Milton Keynes. By now I was really tired mentally, my eyes were sore, I needed to rest my throbbing feet and get some sleep. Shortly after I reached the next checkpoint under a busy road bridge, I had by now passed the halfway mark.

CP5 Milton Keynes – CP6  Nether Heyford 26.0 miles (156.20 total)

I sat down and was given a bowl of beans, rather too many for me to eat but I did knock back another cup of tea. It was now early evening and I'd been going for 30 something hours. I asked where I could sleep and was offered a tent next to the main road. I had a choice, to rest there where others were already sleeping in noisy surroundings or carry on through a second night to sleep in relative comfort at a village hall. I decided not to enjoy the dual carriageway and carry on. It was still light and I would have a couple more hours of daylight to negotiate Milton Keynes. I saw Pete again and he'd had an hours sleep there and was feeling better.

Milton Keynes is not as bad in the light and as it got dark I got the worst of it out of the way. I saw Pete a few more times as we overtook each other in the early miles until he went ahead again.

Eventually after Wolverton the canal goes back out into countryside. I reached Navigation Bridge fairly easily although I was feeling tired. After that, the next few miles were hard, a lot more overgrown than it was a month ago when I last ran here. The canal winds its way through the country until it reaches Stoke Bruerne and the approach to Blisworth tunnel. Stoke Bruerne looked very unfamiliar as I crossed the bridges and climbed the locks, it was the middle of the night and I was very tired and had to keep stopping to double check navigation. It was slow going.

After Stoke Bruerne the canal goes through Blisworth Tunnel and the path goes over a large hill to the other side. At the entrance to the tunnel I could hear lots of strange spooky voices and noises coming from the tunnel, I assumed there must be people in there on boats even in the early morning hours. I climbed up over the hill, marching most of it and descended the other side back to the canal. It was a long climb up but a welcome couple of miles of road. After that the path was better and I was able to pick up a slight bit of speed again as it got light.

A few miles later the route leaves the canal briefly to get to the checkpoint half a mile or so away, it seemed a long way but I found it easily enough and was again made welcome. It was just after 6am.

CP6 Nether Heyford – CP7 Fenny Compton 26.94 miles (183.14 total)

I had a quick cup of tea and laid out my sleeping bag in the back room of the hall where there were two other runners sleeping, apparently both had pulled out. I left instructions to wake me in 3 hours, put my sore feet up on my kit bag and zonked out. Pete was long gone having left an hour before but there was a Pilates class due in the hall at 10am and I wanted to be gone well before then. I woke up myself less than three hours later and had a breakfast of sausages and beans and tea, perfect. The two sleeping runners had gone and been replaced by Anne Green who had caught me up whilst I slept. As I left the hall Steve Gordon and Javed arrived in, it was good to see them. This all reinforced my belief that I had been slowing and runners were never that far away.

The sleep had seemed to switch on a light in my brain. I felt much better mentally and once I got going my legs seemed to find new energy. I was guided back down to the canal path, double checked to make sure I was headed in the right direction and then jogged off with less than 100 miles so go, my plan was to try and do the last 4 sections in one go. Pete was now about 4 hours ahead but I would like to keep a good placing for the race.

I was feeling pretty good now, the sleep had done me good and I made reasonable time along the path until I reached the Braunston tunnel and another march up a hill although not as long. The farmer was busy cutting down the undergrowth so it was easy to navigate but hard going underfoot where I was wading through piles of cut bushes and grass. As I ran down the other side the farmer chased me playfully in his tractor, he did apologise when I got to the steps at the bottom when he realised how far I had come. I descended the steps and paused to catch my breath and took my hat off. As I did I heard a plop and turned round to see my sunglasses disappear to the bottom of the canal.

It was now hot again and I was looking forward to getting something cool in the shop at Braunston. Three calippos later I was a happy bunny. As I strolled along I saw another familiar face, my mum’s boyfriend Paul lived nearby and had been tracking me and had come out to give me some motivation. It was great to see him and break up the journey. He walked with me for a bit until the path went back out into the country again. It was back into long grass and overgrown bushes again. I hoped this would only be for a few miles till I moved off the Grand Union Canal.

I was wrong. I left the Grand Union and turned onto the Oxford Canal where the towpath was a lot worse: hard underfoot, very narrow and overgrown. It was apparent, due to the lack of boats, that this was little used. It was also very warm again. However I knew that it was only 10 miles or so to the next checkpoint. Those 10 miles seemed to take forever, the canal just seemed to wind round in circles across the countryside and looking at the map that's what it did. Eventually I rounded another bend and reached the checkpoint in the gardens of a pub.

CP7 Fenny Compton – CP8 Lower Heyford 22.84 miles (205.98 total)

After another meal of sausage and beans and more tea I set off after a brief stop. I learned that Pete was now only an hour ahead of me having had a rest. I wanted to get this section of canal out of the way as it was wearing me down and I wanted to do as much as I could in daylight.

I carried on, on the towpath, still very narrow, overgrown and in places dangerous where the path had eroded into the canal. Luckily the weather had cooled and even had a shower of rain briefly. The scenery was getting monotonous, no features to speak of just fields and trees, the odd swing bridge and hard going underfoot. As evening approached I reached Banbury as the nightlife was getting into life. My feet were really hurting now and I regularly stopped to stretch and rest at a convenient bench or lock gate. It was really slow going and I must have looked a sorry state to those enjoying their nights out in Banbury.

As it got dark again for the third night I was back out in the countryside. No change in scenery, lots more swing bridges and the path was getting less obvious and I had to check directions regularly as it crossed fields and meadows, some manned by lots of cows. In addition the rain had left it damp and there was more dew forming so a lot of this section was wading through long grass and strange shaped plants getting wet feet. I plodded on slowly until I came across a body lying in the wet grass.

It wasn't just any body. It was Pete, although I didn't recognise him at first. It looked as if he had just collapsed into the long wet grass although the truth was more graceful. He had dressed up in his waterproofs and laid down for a snooze. I woke him up to check he was ok, he was, and then after waiting for him to sort himself out we plodded on together. There was still a few miles to the next checkpoint but we ground it out together in the dark. It was good to have some company for once and we both moaned about the state of the canal path. At times the path was hard to spot so we followed lines of cow pats which seemed to mark the way.

We both needed to sleep but were worried about being overtaken especially being in the last 50 miles or so. We decided to assess the situation when we got to the checkpoint. It was about 2am when we got there and found out that the next runner (Anne) was about 4 hours behind. We decided to get two hours rest so we crawled into a tent. I lanced all my new blisters and tried to sleep. I didn't sleep much but it was good to rest listening to Pete snoring and the trains passing by a few metres away. What seemed like minutes later the tent flap opened and it was time to get up. It was about 4am and damp and cold although the sky was clear and it was going to be a very hot day. I felt reluctant to get out of my sleeping bag as it was so cold and damp but I managed to down some tea, man up and get myself upright. I did console myself that we should be done by nightfall barring any disasters. We did seem to faff a lot before we got going but eventually as the sky got lighter we moved slowly south along the canal.

CP8 Lower Heyford – CP9 Abingdon 23.55 miles (229.53 total)

The first few miles were a bit stop start as we got our legs moving, it was another hot day and the canal path was unrelenting as it was pretty overgrown, narrow and hard underfoot. We paused every time we reached a water tap to top up and generally were not moving fast. We knew that Karen was close to winning the race and would not catch her but also that anyone else was quite a way back so there was no need to panic. Eventually we reached Oxford and slowly negotiated the instructions to transfer from the canal to the Thames path again for the final stretch. I was glad to see the back of the Oxford Canal as it had been a horrible long part of the race and was looking forward to improved terrain along the Thames despite the heat.

At first all seemed good; we passed the rowing clubs, cricket ground on a well made path. But then once back out into the country we returned to endless fields and meadows with paths not so obvious to our tired brains. It was so hot and humid and we looked forward to each lock to get a cold water boost. We kept pausing to rest our feet and took it in turns to go in front and lead each other through the long grass. There was little or no shade and as we approached Abingdon the path seemed to get narrower and more enclosed by high plants, as we followed the trail round we lost our bearings on the map so it seemed ages before we got to Abingdon Weir and crossed over the river. Once over the other side it was a different world with people enjoying their Saturday in the sunshine on the grassy riverbank. We turned right and as we approached the checkpoint Ian Thomas jogged out to greet us and we were again made welcome at the checkpoint in Abingdon.

CP9 Abingdon – CP10 Goring (finish)  18.83 miles (248.36 total)

Pete and I had both agreed not to spend too long here as we were relatively close to the finish and wanted to get there in daylight. I downed lots of fruit and drink and was ready as soon as I could be. I asked if I could dump any unnecessary kit such as waterproofs etc as I would not need them but wasn't allowed as they are compulsory. We left together again in the blazing heat for the shortest (in terms of distance) part of the race. However we were soon back out into long grass and narrow trails and it was slow going, we weren't pushing it too hard as we had heard that Karen had won but no one else was close to us at that point and we had kind of agreed that we wouldn't race each other now.

Despite the terrain and the heat we crossed off the bridges and locks one by one and as the afternoon wore on we eventually ended up at a waterfront café at Benson. There was about 8 miles to go and we stopped here for coffee, coke and callippos. Pete was awesome here as I laid out on a bench in the sun, he fetched and paid for supplies inside, I shall always be grateful. As we lazily enjoyed our refreshments I switched on my phone to see what was happening in the world. I was quite taken aback by the number of messages from friends and family and the people following the trackers online and via Facebook. It was the only time in the race when I felt emotional and stopped reading the messages, they could wait till the end. Just as I was about to turn my phone off a message came through from Lindley. He told me in no uncertain terms to get moving as my Dad was at the finish waiting to see me finish. That was it, we had to go, I downed as much as I could without bringing it back and we left sharpish, only 8 long miles to go.

At first our tired brains were confused just navigating around Benson and back across the river for the last time but we managed to pick up our pace slightly with renewed energy. This energy didn't last very long, our bodies were battered, it was very hot and we were tired and soon we slowed again as the path passed through Wallingford. Then we got the kick up the backside we needed and deserved. Pete received a text asking if we had looked at the online tracker lately as we were being hunted down by runners behind closing in! There then followed what now seems like a comedy moment but at the time I was losing my sense of humour. I switched on my phone and trying to ignore the texts and messages I attempted in the bright sunshine to log into the online tracker and see what was happening. We believed that Anne was still some way back but in truth she had closed the gap and it looked (when I could eventually find some shade) that she was only a couple of miles away at most. In addition she had been overtaken by Rich Cranswick who was closing in on us. In hindsight the distances were probably greater but we couldn't take any chances and our stroll to the finish for the final few miles had to change.

We started to run, at first only a few yards at a time but then longer and longer stretches. We were still ploughing through grassy meadows but they went by quickly. My feet hurt the most; they were screaming at every step but slowly the more I ran the less they hurt. I kept looking ahead as I felt we must be able to see Goring but the river wound round and I couldn't see far along. I kept looking back expecting to see Rich sprinting towards us but didn't. A couple of miles from the end Ian Thomas again ran out to meet us and ran with us for a bit. He seemed to think the gap was bigger than we imagined. At the end of a long flat stretch of meadow I looked back, I guessed we only had a mile or so to go and I could see no one behind, surely that was it?

Then I could see Goring Bridge ahead and the path turned away from the river onto a slight uphill. There was an arrow marker on a tree pointing towards the end. We passed it and along another path to another arrow, it seemed to take an eternity, another two turns and there it was. Lindley and Maxine waiting to greet us in. My Dad was there at the side and it was great to see him. Pete and I crossed the line together in 81 hours, 47 minutes total including 5 odd hours of sleep (for me). After lots of hugs all round we got our huge medals and shared the first male finisher trophy with Rich who came in about half an hour later (he had got some time credit for helping another distressed runner).

We then sat down in the hall and Gill provided us with loads of food and drink. We popped out to cheer Rich in and then Anne. After some food and a chat I laid down on the wooden floor saying I would get up in about 4 hours to drive home. 7 hours later I woke up, a few runners had come in during the night including Javed after his second lap to cap an awesome performance. I had slept through that. Before I left I saw Phil and Dave finish. Glyn kindly drove me back to my car early Sunday morning and I went home with a huge medal, a lovely trophy and a big smile.

Congratulations to everyone involved, the runners, whether they completed it or not, the organisers, particularly Lindley, Maxine and Gill but everyone out on the course helping out, nothing was too much trouble and we were looked after at every point.

In addition I would like to thank friends, family and running buddies for their support before, during and particularly after the event when I have been overwhelmed by the messages and support received and not realised how many people were following myself and others progress.

Andy Horsley

 
 


 

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