T184 – More than a race
T184 is an unsupported run along the length of the Thames from the Thames barrier in Woolwich, East London to the source near Cirencester in Gloucestershire. A total distance of 184 miles (or 294km), there were checkpoints every 25-30 miles where you get a tick in a box and water. Nothing else. You must start with and carry everything you need for potentially 80 hours running, sleeping and eating.
Equipment and kit
My personal race began last year with a LOT of planning. Those who know me, realise that the geek in me likes numbers and spreadsheets, so I had calculated, weighed, and catalogued every kit option I have to the nearest gram. I even catalogued my food choices into kCal/g to get the most efficient pack weight. The idea was that I could then work out the best kit combination.
To get enough edible calories for me to finish this race (10500kCal+), I calculated that I had to carry a minimum 3kg of grub at the start using a combination of snacks / nuts / flapjacks / ultrafuel / and dehydrated foods. I also decided to bring a JetBoil heater for boiling water (hot drinks / rehydrating food) as the weather looked chilly (extra 600g). In training I realised that kit weight would be crucial for me as the first section of the race (where your kit was heaviest), so weight reduction would have to be made elsewhere to save my feet and shoulders from the inevitable pounding on the tarmac of London.
A month ago, the Met Office and several newspapers ran with a series of news articles that predicted a British heatwave and record temperatures. On one hand, this sent me into a minor panic, worrying as to how I would be able to maintain my hydration levels and electrolytes, but on the positive side, my sleeping kit could be minimal. However, as the race approached, the weather took a turn for the worse, sending me scurrying around several forums and auction sites, hunting for ultralightweight sleeping bags and clothing to keep me warm in the predicted freezing nighttime conditions. Eventually I decided to go with just a bivvy bag, and layered clothing to reduce pack weight and volume.
With regards to footwear, I looked at several options, Firstly, my normal choice of trail shoe (Brooks Cascadia) are great for up to 20 miles on road, or 50 miles offroad, then can get a bit cumbersome with potential for high impact on the soles of my feet. A second option of Hoka Stinson Trail initially were promising, giving a large cushioned impact which I thought would help my feet to survive the inevitable battering. However, having completed numerous training runs, I found that the high platform was slightly unstable and caused an old knee injury to flare up.
I decided on switching to road shoes (Brooks Glycerin 11) in the hope that the weather conditions would stay fairly dry and having completed several full kit runs with these, I was sure that they gave my feet the best chance of survival.
In training, my mileage hadn’t been too excessive, but I had been running on average 50-60 miles per week since the Springtime, often going out on shorter runs twice a day, with a few back to back longer runs to simulate running on tired/fatigued legs thrown in, and my legs were feeling in pretty good condition which had been verified by a good performance in this years SDW100 (21hrs17min).
Arriving in London
The race was due to begin on Friday 22nd August at 1030hrs, so I decided to travel up the day before with fellow ultrarunner, Sharon Walton (Stroud AC) on the train. We dropped off our seemingly very heavy kit and overnight bags at the London City Airport Travelodge. This was a pretty good choice as a good nights sleep would be crucial, and decent lodgings were very limited in the immediate vicinity of race start.
We decided to recce the journey to the Thames Barrier café as I like to visualise routes, and we could gauge what time to leave in the morning. So we walked past a few sugar factories, and walked, and walked…… about 3 miles to the start line via Woolwich foot tunnel.
Hmm, maybe the other direction would be easier? So we then followed the Thames path towards the O2 Arena. This was a further 2 miles. Enough was enough, our feet were already feeling the tarmac, so we had an excellent meal at Wagamamas, and caught the Emirates cable car back to the North side of the river, then the DLR to our stop. This was a great journey, and I especially enjoyed seeing the estuary wind its way towards the city centre past the imposing Canary Wharf, and distant centre, another visual positive.
Whilst hunting local shops for some last minute snacks, I spotted some extra large bubble wrap in a recycling bin…. BRILLIANT!! We quickly pulled it out and made off with our haul. This would prove to be a great find, lightweight, easily deployed, and a great insulating layer against the frozen floor / damp benches. (Lesson #1, Top tip!)
Getting back to the hotel, an early night was in order. I tested out the bubble wrap, which fitted nicely on to the top of my WAA bag, and caused no irritating noises or squeaks. I then applied some RockTape to strap my right knee and a troublesome left calf using techniques as demonstrated at the T1 workshop. I decided against taping my feet, as, this can cause me some issues if my feet get wet during the race, and used Chamois cream instead. This proved to be a great decision during the race as numerous wet paddocks, and muddy trails ensued. Making sure that I stayed hydrated, I also continued to snack/carb up ahead of the weekends race and got my head down.
We took the decision to book a taxiride to the start line as 184 miles was more than enough, and after a reasonable nights sleep, we had a plentiful breakfast (I had bacon and scrambled eggs on toast, and porridge with honey)
Arriving bang on 0800hrs, Sharon went straight to the University of Kent table to complete her nutrition tests, and I completed my registration smoothly, and was slightly disappointed that I wasn’t asked to prove my calorie count (I had a highlighted spreadsheet ready…..such a geek!). I then collected my laminated route maps, plus GPS tracker and stashed them ready in the top of my WAA race bag.
I sat down in the café, wanting to rest my legs as much as possible, and also keep out of the decidedly chilly air. Chatting to other competitors, we all had some kit envy, marvelling at some innovations (taped number to shoulder strap) and Gucci kit choices (map holders / GPS units / bubblewrap etc). There were also some runners with seemingly underweight or overweight bags, ranging from a paltry 7Ltr camelback to a massive 60L rucksack (plus frontal bag!!). Surely they had got something wrong, or had I??? On reflection, overall, I was very happy with my kit selections, weighing a total 6.9kg plus water (8.9kg). I also discovered that we were joined by a high calibre of competitors including several MDS finishers, a GB endurance athlete, and the 5xIronman distance world champion. I still can’t comprehend the madness of that event!
After a nice cuppa, and taking some last minute carbs and fluids, the crowds gathered for the safety briefing, conducted by Shane Benzie. I had a brief chat to Dave Cox and James Allen, with whom I had completed some training runs with. They seemed focussed on the challenge ahead, so I didn’t want to disturb them too much. It was likely that I would run some of this race with them as we were fairly equally matched whilst training.
Runners gather at the race start (note bubblewrap)
Leg 1 – Thames Barrier to Brentford (26M) – A racing start
At 1030hrs, Shane, funnelled the runners to the race start, and we were off! Predictably, a fast group formed at the front and they soon zoomed off towards the O2 arena. I deliberately slowed up and kept away from these racing snakes. For me, the race wouldn’t start until 100miles+, so I kept to my comfort zone, keeping my HR down, relaxing in to a steady rhythm of about 10:30mins/mile, drafting into the wind where possible and watching other runners form. After a while I spotted a familiar face. Mark Miller had run the SDW100 with me in June and looked focussed on the task ahead. We had a good chat about the task ahead, debated about which were the best looking pubs that we passed, and mused as to how many more we would pass on the way? Soon we were headed in to the Greenwich foot tunnel, where we were joined by another couple of runners, Andy Saville, Lee Sutherland, and Ben Scott. I spotted that Ben was wearing a Granada athletics cap and casually asked him if he was a big Kurani James fan, to which he laughed and explained that his wife had worked at the Commonwealth games as a sports physio and had collected this cap as part of a kit swap. This sparked a wide-ranging conversation, and we soon found ourselves chatting about life, the universe and everything. Great, I thought, this could work well! The North side of the river weaved its way along side streets and the riverfront, often taking 90 degree turns in and out of building complexes. Some of these diversions ended in rather frustrating and unmarked cul-de-sacs due to building works, (St.Catherines docks etc), and I soon noticed a pattern, that if the turn involved a gated entrance, then it was probably going to end badly for us.
Ignoring these minor frustrations, myself and Ben joked about the building works, and used them as a game rather than getting worked up about it. Passing through Tower bridge, all the runners had to dodge and weave their way through the crowd who ogled our excessive kit choice. Some spectators asked where we were going and were left agog by our casual responses……Cirencester……? Where are you going to sleep??? Why??? We told them to look up T184 which I hope helped to spark the later social media frenzy. I accidently knocked a Japanese tourist flying when she stepped directly in to my path, living her life through her viewfinder rather than watching out for brightly coloured ultrarunners. She took it in good humour and wished us well, no doubt asking her friends, who are these strange people?
Next was the long drag along the embankment, where we were regularly overtaken by fast-moving joggers on their lunch break. A couple of these were even running barefoot which I thought was a brave decision given the uneven pavements and potential sharp objects. Not for me I decided, wincing with the pack weight in my cushioned road shoes.
At Westminster, the crowds increased again, forcing our small group to walk, which was probably a good thing as the temperatures had risen and I was starting to perspire heavily. At this point we were overtaken by a female runner, and another guy, but I didn’t get a chance to say hello, and was happy to let them zoom on, pacing myself gently, preserving my water, and eating my snacks regularly (mixture of salted nuts, ChiaCharge flapjack etc). Remember, this is a 2 day+ race….
Still running with Ben, we reached the Chelsea Marina, where concerned doormen in top hats watched warily in case we decided to make a dash for the cool hotel foyer. I did however, spot a rather bored looking security guard and asked him if there were any public toilets in the area. Why yes, he responded, there is one right there, pointing to a half-hidden doorway. I was so surprised and delighted that I rushed in and used the facility, forgetting to fill my nearly empty water bottles. Emerging back into daylight, I was equally delighted that Ben had kindly decided to wait for me, as it seems he too was enjoying the conversation.
Trotting past champagne quaffing socialites (WAGS?) we were joined again by Mark, Andy, and Rich Cranswick who amusingly told me about his running heritage (brought up by a wolfpack?), and his PoS experience last year. This again brought home the enormity of this challenge. Other important questions were asked in the group, such as, whats the nickname for Fulham Football Club? (The Cottagers). How many pubs have we run past so far? What would you rather have, a pint or an ice cream? (Pint). At this point, Mark and Andy admitted that they were working too hard and took a conscious decision to ease off which I think was a wise move. Arriving at CP1 at 1530 hrs (5hrs for 26 miles covered so far), I was surprised by the carnage that greeted us. Many of the early pacesetters were lying on the floor, treating nasty blisters, cooking food, and many were covered in heavy salty deposits. Surely this couldn’t be a good sign for later on?
Leg 2 – Brentford to Ouzeley (52M) – Bubblewraphead
Not wanting to hang around too much, I quickly filled my bottles with water, added some snacks to my front pouches, applied some rocktape to a small patch on my lower back (caused by a strap buckle), and some blisteeze to my right heel. This small hot spot was probably caused by excessive weaving around tourists, so I would advise runners to walk Tower Bridge, and Parliament next year. Ben was concerned about his feet and applied so plasters to his forefoot.
Leaving many runners behind us, myself, and Ben then switched to more of a run/walk pattern, aware that the temperatures had risen, and that we had 26 miles to the next checkpoint. I had decided to fill one bottle with water, and the other with High5 Zero electrolyte. In addition to this, I was regularly popping salt tablets (Succeed S-Tab!) on an hourly basis. This worked really well for me and I will employ similar electrolyte tactics in the future.
I think that we must have taken a wrong turn after a mile or so, as we ran for a couple of miles along a road in Twickenham, and when we did find the River again, some of the runners who were previously behind us, now were back in front. I wasn’t too concerned about this, as I was sure that similar events would happen again later when tiredness would affect our judgement (and they did)
Back on the river, a series of locks now greeted us, and I had prelaminated a schedule of locks / distances / and available facilities as part of my preparation (geek alert). Unfortunately, I didn’t realise that a lot of the water taps / toilets were not readily available to pedestrians, and many were locked up outside of normal working hours. When arriving at Teddington lock, we switched to the South side of the river but couldn’t find the water point. Walk running along the river, we constantly navigated among other groups, and runners, including Jerry Hunter, whose salt encrusted Skins top was a lively topic for discussion, and we all admired the magnificent views on this stretch of river. In particular, Hampton Court palace was resplendent in the evening sunshine.
Arriving at Molesley lock (38M), I asked an elderly fisherman as to where I could find the water point. He asked what this was for, so I explained that we were in a race to the source of the river. He then asked me and Ben to follow him through an adjacent green door, and into his kitchen! He kindly allowed us to fill our bottles and wished us well for the race. Emerging back on to the path, a group of 4 runners (including Lee Bhagat) stopped in their tracks, and I asked Les if he would mind helping these guys out too. With a twinkle in his eye, he beckoned them into his pad and said this was a bit of fun as his wife was away for the evening.
Shortly afterwards a more difficult stretch of navigation was required around Shepperton (we had to cross the river and then weave our way back to the river, again we were overtaken by more knowledgeable competitors). I was also laughed at by some local teenagers who amusingly shouted out ‘Run Bubblewraphead, Run!!’ in an InBetweeners style. This actually made me laugh too, and seemingly not much could break my good vibes.
As twilight approached, I talked to Ben about a potential pit stop and he surprised me by saying that he didn’t have any cooking equipment with him and instead was relying on powdered energy drinks, home made flapjacks, sundried bananas (these were really good!), and packets of nuts in order to reduce his pack weight. We found an available water tap at Chertsey lock and filled my bottles. Initially using a nice stretch of grass, I had to move the stove to a nearby bench after being told off by an irate lockkeeper. 2 minutes of boiling using the excellent JetBoil stove, and my dehydrated food (pasta, 600kCal) was cooking nicely. I also made an extra coffee for Ben to keep him warm. To save time, I layered up, put my headlamp on, and decided to eat the pasta on the go. This proved difficult on the uneven towpath, and I ended up spraying half of the food all over myself. Next time, I vowed to cook the meal, then have a quick kip while it cooled, and scoff quickly before moving on (Lesson #2).
Darkness now engulfed us, and with the lack of sunlight, temperatures soon fell. I found that a perfect combination for me at this stage was the Salomon running top, with OMM pertex smock to take the chill off. Being more slender, Ben relied on 3,4 or even 5 layers at a time to keep his core temperatures up.
We had conversations about the large amount of aircraft coming into and out of Heathrow, and couldn’t believe that after 50 miles of running that we were still inside the M25 orbital motorway. Clearing this landmark, would shortly become our first BIG milestone and a positive marker to embrace, although the planes would take a while longer.
We jogged beneath the M25 (Fistpump!) and carried on along the riverbank and were confused to see a flashing light of another runner? way off to our left. We were due to reach CP2 shortly and when we hit a road junction, this seemed to be past our RV point on the route maps provided. Had we gone too far? Was the flashing light at the CP? We doubled back for ¼ mile, not wanting to miss the check in. Nothing. Hmm, I phoned the race director, Shane, and asked him if the CP was past the aforementioned road junction. He confirmed it was, so we doubled back again, and within 200m of our original turning point, spotted the organisers van and excellent marshalls. Bugger! That cost us 10 minutes. Again I had to remind myself that this race would be measured in hours, not minutes, a sobering thought. We had arrived at CP2 at 2215hrs. (just under 12 hours of racing done)
Leg 3–Ouzeley to Henley-on-Thames (80M) – 1st night on the river
CP2 was quite a chilly location and only had a single bench, so not wanting to get cold, we gladly filled our water, Ben tended to his blisters, and soon we were running through Windsor, and received a real boost when a random? group of pub go-ers gave us a huge cheer and some High 5’s when we trotted past their table. I’m pretty sure that they were following the race on the excellent Go-Tek tracker, and knew that we were due to run past them. How many more random acts of moral support would we receive?
This was a long leg (28M), and I was keen to get in a brief kip, as my lack of sleeping bag meant that a sleep would be difficult in cold conditions. I was aware that sleep deprivation would make navigation difficult later. Ben agreed with my strategy, so we looked for, and found a couple of benches at Boveney lock, that also had water for my kettle. I set up my brew, made a packet soup and layered up. The bubble wrap worked perfectly on the bench, but even with a full set of thermals on it was still freezing! (Lesson #3, Locks have running water (weirs), and are bloody cold) I set my alarm on a countdown for 30 minutes and had a fitful rest. I noticed a couple of other groups passing through during this time and wondered where they planned on resting? Waking up, I felt much refreshed, quickly packed up, and we were soon cruising along at a quicker rate than when we had stopped. A quick boost to our ego, we were chuffed that this tactic seemed to be working.
Soon we came to Dorney Reach. A large sign on a gate read ‘Private footpath’, so we turned off the obvious route and followed the alternative path in to a housing estate. Surely this was wrong? It was. After 5 minutes, we doubled back and looked more closely at the offending sign. It was a private section of footpath, but was aimed at cyclists not walkers, ggrr! That cost us another ½ mile and 10 minutes. These diversions were starting to add up. Lesson #4, Recce the route at the appropriate time of day. Things look different at night. This was a fairly crushing blow to our morale.
On, on, underneath the M4, winding paths a bit of a blur, crossing the river at regular intervals. I got out my racing poles and used these to push myself forward, unwilling to run much at this stage, but still going at about 3.5mph. Given Bens poor feet, I also offered these to my racing colleague so that he could ease the pressure on his blisters. I had decided now that I would stay with Ben through to the end unless he wanted to ditch me. We made a great team, each taking it turns to lead / cajole / motivate, and time passed quickly, listening to his stories about life, and running. One thing that did amuse me greatly was Bens’ propensity for belching. Every 5-10 minutes a concerning amount of gas would be released. He apologised and explained that he sometimes suffered from a painful build up of gas when racing endurance events.
This nighttime leg dragged on. We didn’t see any other runners for a while, and to lighten the mood, I put on my iPod and shared/yowled along to some choice musical lyrics with my increasingly desperate colleague. I amused myself by vocally murdering some eclectic choices including The Ramones, Level 42, Neil Diamond, Fountains of Wayne (Stacy’s Mom) and Michael Jackson. As we approached Henley, the sky brightened as did our mood. Now able to run again, we adopted a run/walk strategy and jogged past the magnificent Culham Court. ‘Who’d live in a place like this?’ we quipped to each other in a Loyd Grossman style (a former Miss Australia, apparently)
A quick stop in a pub garden for a changeover in kit as we were both getting a little warm, and we trotted on into Henley past a few early morning rowers / walkers and joggers. Our spirits lifted and we arrived at CP3 in a positive state of mind. (0751hrs, 80 miles). Collecting some water, and topping up a bottle with UltraFuel (Dutch chocolate flavour) I realised that many of the benches were already occupied by other competitors, all buried in sleeping/bivvy bags. We felt pretty good, so vowed to carry on and take advantage of the good conditions.
Leg 4 –Henley-on-Thames to Streatley (100M) – Halfway and beyond
Next up was Shiplake lock, at 84.3 miles, this represented another landmark. By now, we had spotted a number of opportunities to forage, and were regularly collecting blackberries, plums, damsons and any other fruit that presented itself in accessible points. This shared booty gave us a tasty boost of energy, hydration, and again kept our spirits high. However, the lack of water and toilet facilities was a concern. Shiplake had no access to water (keeper had lost the key??), and we were pointed a further 3 miles down the road to Sonning lock.
A friendly and curious lockkeeper helped us at Sonning, and we both gratefully used the facilities. Oddly Ben had stopped burping now, could this be caused by his energy drink? I topped up my water/snacks and on we went, ignoring the very tempting icecream / cake etc
We soon emerged on to an open field and I realised with a start, that I had run here before, dressed as a werewolf, in the Halloween 5, a fancy dress night race. I mused to myself, that if I could get the timings right then I could have done the same again, perhaps scaring some of the front runners. At this point I received a call from my wife. She told us that we were in about 7th/8th place overall. What?! I thought we were much lower than that, but it appears that some frontrunners had been experiencing issues, perhaps caused by an overzealous pace. Ben was meanwhile chatting to the organiser of the Reading ParkRun, who was following the race online, and gave us a boost with his welcome conversation.
Scantily clad festival goers with wellies, soon filled the paths, and we again had to weave our way through an increasingly large crowd. Temptingly a boat was shipping most of them through Reading to a convenient mooring point and I wondered what would Shane make of a GPS that seemed to go straight up the middle of the river at a steady 5mph? Music was just starting up when we suddenly found ourselves alone again, but not for long, a surprise visit from a couple of my friends (Gareth and Helen Jenkins) cheered us both up, and we walked alongside them for a few minutes on a very flinty track that was giving us both some discomfort to our bruised / blistered feet. Gareth raved about the GoTek app, and said that Social Media was working up to a frenzy. The outside world seemed very far away.
After stopping in Tilehurst to dress Bens feet, we realised that we had passed through the halfway point without marking the occasion. Mentally we could start counting down now. Great! This helped me through one of the tougher sections. In my mind, I thought that there was a single runnable paddock until we reached Whitchurch. One field turned into five and seemed to go on infinitely. How could I get this so wrong? What other horrors awaited us? A party boat filled with champagne quaffing revellers hardly lifted my spirits. 88 miles to go……
Finally we reached Whitchurch and with it a slightly different challenge. A hill, yes, a lovely hill!! I relished this and challenged myself to get to the top as quickly as possible, and to take advantage of using a different muscle group.
Flowing back to the riverside after the undulations, I was feeling tired now. I could easily have laid down in a paddock and shut my eyes for a couple of blissful hours. This time it was Ben who provided the mental fortitude and kept us driving on to the upcoming CP. Passing a horde of afternoon walkers, I kept on the inside section of the next path, aware that my fatigued mental state could easily drop me into the river. I later found out that another competitor actually suffered this fate.
As we arrived at CP4 at 1435 hours (28 hours = 100miles), a welcome apparition of Helen and Gareth appeared, and assured us that we were smashing it. To be honest I felt smashed, and readily lay down in the hotel car park at CP4. This time I would grab 90 minutes as this for me was a key stop off point (100 miles), and the predicted frost in the 2nd night would be difficult to sleep in. During my kip, my wife and newborn baby boy Finley also arrived and gave me a massive slobbery kiss. I loved it! Again, other runners came and went. Surprisingly, there seemed to be a high drop out around us, as Jerry Hunter (aka Salty), decided that enough was enough. I convinced myself that some guys had overtaken us, but that our sleep would serve us well in the coming hours.
Leg 5 – Streatley to Oxford (130miles) – Heading into a 2nd night
A delicious hot meal (Fruit curry rice), fllled my stomach, and after a quick chat with Dave Cox (who had just arrived), we set out on the longest leg of the race. The path took us on the opposite side of the riverbank than I had expected. Lack of familiarity during a sudden downpour soon cost us again as we diverted an extra few hundred meters up a busy road, getting pretty wet in the process, I think foraging some plums may have distracted us? Retracing our steps to the Thames Path, we soon found ourselves running through Wallingford. Again, a pleasant surprise awaited, with a couple of old running club friends (Rachel and Steve Holford), giving us a cheer and a shout as we meandered past their front door.
I happily noted that this was now my longest ever Ultra, and my hydration/electrolyte levels seemed to be working well. It was just as well, because the subsequent diversion away from Benson weir, added extra distance and yet more warm tarmac to our fatigued feet and legs. This next section proved tough for us, and we ran into the sunset feeling quite apprehensive about the upcoming night, already there was a decided chill in the air. We took a decision to camp up for a 20 minute sleep so that we could be as fresh as possible and stopped at Day’s lock before it got too cold(113miles).
Waking up in a cold mist, there were 4 other runners just arriving. Dave Cox, James Allan, Lee Bhagat, and Mark Miller were all struggling with fatigue and hadn’t been able to sleep because of the cold / earlier rain. Myself and Ben were seemingly much fresher, and we ran through them fairly quickly, although we soon saw Dave and James again after a small navigational error at Culham lock.
After some long drags across some dampening fields (gaiters helped to keep my feet reasonably warm), what followed after Abingdon lock was by far the toughest section of the race for me. It was properly miserable. Cold, damp, misty, slippery and rutted underfoot with no clear direction, or sign of the river. Nettles and brambles either side of the twisting track nipped at our clothing and legs. I properly hated it. Only my racing poles kept me upright in places. With fatigued minds, that 90 minutes (about 4.5 miles) felt like an eternity. The only thing that kept me vaguely sane was my iPod. Together we started howling along to Billy Joel (The River of Dreams) http://youtu.be/hSq4B_zHqPM and somehow came up with some explicit rambling lyrics about this race that cannot be repeated here, but made us laugh in the face of adversity. Looking back now, the real lyrics were fairly apt and didn’t really need to be changed much. http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/billyjoel/theriverofdreams.html
A quick stop off at Radley college boathouse to dry and warm our feet then we set out again towards Oxford. Better now but still very cold, our pace seemed sluggish, but there was nothing we could do except keep moving forward, relentlessly on, on, on.
Relatively warm underpasses coaxed and caressed us gently, surely 20 minutes won’t hurt? We resisted the temptation to stop again, more from fear of vagrants, holographic dogs (more to come of this later), and late night revellers than any sense of what was required for the race.
Finding CP5 seemingly abandoned at 4am with only a pile of water and a ghostly quiet race van in place, we were confused as to what to do? I knocked gently and then more loudly on the van. No answer. We looked around a bit more and started to fill our bottles. The hazard lights on the van flashed repeatedly and the locks opened, closed, opened. What was going on? Eventually Chris Edmonds emerged bedraggled from the back of the van, slightly dazed, he’d been forced to DNF at CP2 by a nasty looking ankle issue and had volunteered to man the checkpoints. What a trooper! I gently asked if we needed to be logged in, ‘oh’, he said, ‘ haven’t you seen Paul yet?’. Who? Chris limped off and a minute or so later returned with Paul from Rocktape, who’d fallen asleep in his nearby car. I’m not sure as to who was the more fatigued, myself and Ben, or these two gents, who were obviously at their wits end?
Leg 6 – Oxford to Bampton (155M) – Damsel in distress
Getting cold rapidly, we put on all of our layers, and crucially Ben added his space blanket. Shuffling off in to the dark cold night we vowed to find somewhere warmish to rest up before a final push. We only had 54 miles to go now. Surely we were going to finish. We were going to finish. Leaving Oxford, we walked along the canalside nr Binsey and heard a loud banging in a nearby boatyard. Surely this was too early for work?? Crossing a small wooden bridge an apparition appeared and weaved its way towards us, screaming for help. Was this real, a windup, or were we hallucinating? No, it was definitely real. A young lady was obviously in trouble. She was covered in mud, reeds, and was shivering violently, Christ, she’d been in the freezing canal/river! Realisation dawned through our fatigued minds that we were the only people that could help, and that there was no-one else here or within a mile or so. Ben took off his space blanket and placed it over her violently shaking head. Barely coherent she could hardly make any sense and was jabbering in a foreign dialect. I added my blanket, got her to stand in my bivvy and added a layer of bubble wrap. She was still shivering badly so I gave her my lovely warm woollen hat too. We determined that she had been on a night out with friends and woke up with a splash in the water. Luckily she was a qualified lifeguard, and had managed to drag herself out of the river. She had no idea of where we were (she was a student, new to Oxford), and kept asking us to drive her to her boyfriends house (Lucas). We gently explained that this wasn’t possible, but running 184 miles was beyond her comprehension and asked if her boyfriend was local. I managed to get a telephone number out of her and called the boyfriend. He’d been worried sick and had reported her missing to the police but had no idea how to get to us. I signalled to Ben, who called the ambulance service. Where exactly were we? Our maps had no Grid co-ordinates, and we could only see signs for Bossoms boatyard….. I found a nearby boat for sale sign that had a postcode on. Ben then disappeared up a nearby track to find the nearest point of access, and left my with Katie, our damsel in distress. Consciously keeping her talking, I made her tell me about her life and anything else to keep her awake, and also phoned race HQ to tell them we were dealing with a non-race emergency, Shane checked that we were ok, and noted this for later reference.
I then realised that I didn’t have Bens’ mobile number, where had he gone? After what seemed like an eternity, I was becoming increasing concerned for Katies welfare and core temperature in this, the coldest part of the day, it was 5am!! I was very relieved when Ben reappeared with two ambulance drivers / first responders. What a sight for sore eyes, especially as Ben told me excitedly that these were the best looking emergency service workers he had ever seen. Whatever!
These mighty fine responders put another blanket over Katie and started to walk her back down the track towards the ambulance and told us not to worry, she would be fine. They left behind my bivvy and a large survival blanket, but took the other layers that had been put on the poor girl. I then called Lucas to tell him to get to John Radcliffe hospital pronto, and called Shane to tell him that we were on the move again, but were likely going to have to stop to put a brew on (and warm up).
All of this took about 45 minutes, and both myself and Ben were now very, very cold ourselves. Perhaps we needed an ambulance? We struggled on to the next lock and spotted an open wooden education shack just set off the path. Perfect, an absolute lifesaver. We dived in and I fired up the Jetboil. Ben was asleep in 2 minutes and I used the new emergency blanket to wrap around myself, especially as my bubble wrap had gone, and my bivvy was muddly/wet. Jeez, it was perishing!
Just 30 minutes later I spotted Dave and James striding along the path and struggled to my feet. I drank the remains of the tea, and gave Ben a warmish cup. He was shivering loudly, so we had to get going pronto to warm ourselves up.
After a few minutes, the magnificent sun cut through the mist and warmed our bones. We looked at each other and shook our heads. We both think that if we had been 5 minutes earlier or later then Katies story would not have had a happy ending. (I called Lucas later and found out that all was well). Equally, neither of us wanted to go through a 3rd night. I calculated that we had roughly 51 miles to go, lets do this!!
At this point, I would be interested in seeing our GPS data, but think we covered the next 12 miles at around 3 mph, not too bad, especially as we had to navigate another badly rutted/nettle section near to Chimney/Shifford. Cursing poor trail maintenance, we would have to speed up to hit our declared target of sub 60 so we opened up and started to run. We had already overtaken Dave and James who were now suffering with blisters and hallucinations (they had slept in an underpass)
Going into CP6 at 1355hrs, the volunteers commented that we were looking fresh, really!?! A quick drying of the feet, whilst Ben replastered his, I realised that apart from tenderness and bruising, and a blister on each heel, my feet had survived remarkably well. I have to give some credit to the Brooks Glycerin shoes, and also a combination of rotating socks / chamois cream.
Leg 7 – Bampton to Castle Eaton (168M)
We now only had 29 miles to go, so sprang out of the CP, saying goodbye to my brother and family members who had surprised me by emerging from the pub with a pint in their hands…. I had been informed that I had been ‘beaten by a girl’ (Karen), ‘Aah’, I said with a knowing wink to Ben, ‘but did she save someones life?’ That confused them….. lol
We both realised that due to blisters, running was now easier than walking, so opened up to a steady jog at every opportunity. This felt a lot easier than I expected, and I soon put away my racing poles as the constant metronomic clacking was making me drowsy. I knew this part of the trail reasonably well, so we motored through without any major issues, and soon we had passed through Grafton, and Buscot lock. At StJohns lock, a small crowd had gathered to watch us come through. My brother (and family), the Waltons (including Sharon who’d DNFd at 102 miles after suffering with shoulder issues), and Ian Kenny Roberts, were amongst those who were there. I felt myself getting a little emotional, so needed to push on as quickly as possible. Ben too admitted that he was welling up at the thought of seeing his family at the finish. Come on boys, keep it together, I kept telling myself.
A nice section then followed into Lechlade, along which we were racing the last of the cruising boats up to the last navigable point on the mighty Thames (another milestone). Just 23 miles to go. Miles ticking down, constantly running. A quick kiss for Hayley and Finley in Lechlade, plus motivational talk from Gareth before that horrible road section, south towards Castle Eaton. We gladly ran this part, trying to ignore the rushing traffic, carefully placing our feet on the overgrown verge. Surely somebody could put a path in?? We completed this 1.2 mile section in a magnificent 15minutes30 seconds. Much better than I could have hoped for at this stage.
Several anonymous fields next, our legs working overtime, concentrating on form, keeping relaxed. Then tarmac. Again. A mile or so along Blackford lane and into Castle Eaton. Greeted by some fantastic super enthusiastic marshalls, we ran to our disbelief into a party atmosphere at CP7 at 1734hrs. By now I was pretty much out of food, and would have gladly killed for any substantial nourishment. Cracking a few jokes, mostly about my feet, my mood was superb as we only had 16 miles to go!
I seriously felt privileged to have so many good friends that showed their support. I had been keeping this race a bit low-key as I wasn’t 100% confident that I would be able to finish, so any support was truly a bonus. On reflection, I never really felt alone during this challenge, and I am sure that this helped spur me on, helped motivate me to keep moving relentlessly forward.
Final leg – Castle Eaton to the source, nr Kemble (184M)
We didn’t stay long at the Red Lion, only long enough for me to throw my raspberry/chia seed mix all over myself. I joked that I did this to improve my odour, seriously I was starting to badly honk. Even the flies were staying away from me. Ben still thought he smelled of Rooibos…. Hmm I wasn’t so sure. Enough frivolity, we were on a mission and needed to complete this task by 2230hrs, before the predicted storm / heavy rain. Cheered back out on to the trail, we sped? back down to the river. I felt pretty good at this stage, and spurred on Ben to keep pushing, it was my turn to be positive, however, we did revert to a run/walk strategy as his feet were feeling the strain. Ducking under the A419 dual carriageway, we layered up on a bench in Cricklade. The evening chill was starting to bite. Through Cricklade itself and past another inviting pub we re-entered some paddocks. Wary cows kept their distance, perhaps put off by our resonating odour, and we soon turned onto a gravel track. 12 miles to go, great, I thought, this section was going to be easy!
One thing that I have learned in ultras, is that a low point is only just around the corner from a high one. And now, it was my turn to go from an ethereal high to a desperate low. This gravel track just kept going, and seemed to repeat on itself, over and over again. Every corner, every straight seemed to be the same nightmare that we had just finished. My vision dimmed as the light faded, and even though I put fresh batteries in my head torch, it barely seemed to light the way. What was happening, was it a fog/mist again or just my mood? I took to timing our runs. 2 minutes on, 1 minute off. Each set of three would equate to 6 minutes of running, and another tick in the box.
To help us along I turned on my iPod, and just when Ben was about to throttle me, we were rescued by a couple of unexpected faces. Some old friends of mine, Dave Grant, and Chris Cowcher, who had walked the Thames path for charity in the summer (http://www.stroudlife.co.uk/Relatives-training-charity-efforts-hit-30-60/story-21270149-detail/story.html , it took Chris about 7 days), appeared in front of us. Giving us a timely boost, they told us about their experiences and couldn’t believe that we were still able to run. (Barely, lads, barely). Again, the power of the GoTek app was responsible for their actions, they just had to come and witness what was happening.
Leaving Dave and Chris behind, we ran into Ashton Keynes over a cricket pitch, and along the road. A small navigational hitch (had to double check my Harvey map), then on again in to more lakes. Just when I was launching into a terrible rensition of One Hand in my Pocket by Alanis Morrisette, yet another familiar face trotted up beside us. Simon Campbell (Cirencester AC), had got lost just a couple of miles from where he works and had been running up and down the gravel tracks trying to locate us. Eventually his wife had used GoTek to talk him in. I had to refuse his offer of some Lucozade and feeling emotional, it was all I could do to stumble on, bummer!
At last, a positive sign. The Mill Lane development nr Somerford Keynes signalled just 6 miles to go. Or was it 5? My mind was playing tricks on me and even though I had run this section several times, I couldn’t remember any landmarks. I started seeing animals in the corner of my eyes. First a Dog, then a Cat, then later Sheep (actually was grass tussocks), a Wild Boar, killer African hornet (flower bud). My imagination was running wild.
It was now pretty dark, but a lot milder than previous nights, a sign that rain was on its way. We weaved our way across yet more fields, missing one turn, but working our way back along a fence until we found the gate. Now it was Bens turn to drag me along through Ewen, not far now. A quickish road section, then some muddy woods, over a road, and in to the home straight.
I pointed us towards a track on the left hand side of the final paddocks, as I didn’t want to slog my way through long wet grass. We kept moving relentlessly forward. We were going to do this, under 60 hours! Emotional highs again, and we navigated across the final road and towards the not so distant lights. Again, my vision was dimming (I later realised that my contacts were covered in mud/dust), and we stuck to our pact. Brothers in Arms, we sprinted towards the finishing line, basking in the glory, holding hands, sinking to our knees to finally kiss the stone.
A cacophony of lights, emotions running high, people everywhere. It felt like we had won an Olympic gold, surely the highlight of my Ultrarunning career so far. Receiving our medals, Ben and I hugged, an outpouring of mutual respect and admiration for what we had achieved together. Without Ben’s positive influence, I would not have been able to do this, certainly not in the time that we had achieved. I hope that I will be honoured enough to run with him again in the future.
Joined by our children (Finley and Ralph), we mused about the future. What race would we do together next? A thought occurred to me, we should have spooned up instead of freezing in our own shivering misery at night. Next time, we could do that. Minimal gains and all that, Dave Brailsford would be proud of me. Our bemused wives looked on at this odd couple.
Leaving the Stone, our party headed up the fields to the Thames Head pub. Just in time for final orders, I necked a pint and ordered 6 bags of Pork scratchings (5 of which were for Ben) and some crisps. We were too late for food, so beer and snacks would have to suffice, I was starving!
More family, friends, and Cirencester AC runners joined us (Matt Hurdle, Paul Barlow, David Wright, Isla Scott etc). Another pint and the world was a nice hazy place to be.
Our official finishing time was 2210 on the Sunday evening, which put us in to joint 4th place. Shane had kindly offered to deduct a further 45 minutes off our time which would equate to the time spent in Oxford sorting out Katie (she was discharged later that day with no side effects!). This would give us an overall finishing time of 58hrs and 55 minutes.
A further 12 runners would complete the course, and I went back to the stone on the Monday afternoon to witness the final group reaching the stone at 1516hrs, just under 77 hours of running. Now that was an impressive feat of endurance.
I would give anyone credence for attempting the run and even more so to those that completed it. The feat of the winner, Karen Hathaway, and 2nd place athlete, Kieron Coulter in particular were amazing, and will be difficult to beat in future years.
Reflections on the race
The T184 was the single most brutal challenge I have ever completed. At times it was soul destroying, it completely ruled my life for more time than I care to admit to (from kit analysis to route checking, to completing the darn thing), and on a few occasions very nearly broke me. However, I would recommend the race to anyone that is mad enough to take it on. Shane organised a fantastic event, and I have now doubt that the T184 will get bigger and better with each coming year. By doing this race I met a fellow runner who was mad enough to do the race, but sane enough to keep me going when I needed a pick me up. Next time, Ben, you should get an iPod!!
I also realise that I didn’t complete the event alone. The support from friends and family was immense and I look upon these people with a new found respect. They had given up their time to come into the back of beyond to cheer a nutter who was kissing a stone. How mad is that?
Normally I keep my medals in a drawer at home and they very rarely see the light of day. This one, might be different. I feel that I truly did something different, and had properly earned this slab of engraved metal. I might even make a display of it and in future years show it to Finley and his mates. Finley, your Dad, ran 184 miles unsupported, from London to Cirencester. And I have the evidence to prove it!!
Full results can be found here http://www.t184.co.uk/home/2014-results/
As this was such a big challenge, I wanted to raise a little bit of money for two charities that are close to my heart. If you are able to donate any loose change you can, these aching muscles will be so much more worth it!
My nominated charities are the Alzheimer’s Society, and Juvenile Diabetes Research Fund (JDRF). I really appreciate all your support and thank you for any donations.