It is Wednesday morning and the wait is finally over. I’m driving to Goring with the Foo Fighters’ ‘Best of Me’ playing on repeat and after months of preparation and several years ultra-running experience under my belt I have the courage to start this race.
After registration and making sure I have everything I need, I meet up with Martin and Dave, we have informally agreed to form a team and stay together for as long as possible – Plan A.
We exchange hellos with a few familiar faces we then we’re off, our plan is to run for 28min and walk for 2, with one person taking the lead at a time and reading the map. I decided that for this race I would only use a normal watch, so no GPS or HR, just running easy and by feel.
I have to be honest and admit that I don’t really like the start of long races, your legs work fine and you don’t feel like you have to work hard for anything. Apart from running through the middle of the Henley-on-Thames Regatta, the first leg of this race to checkpoint 1 at around 27miles was uneventful. We all arrived well, topped up our drinks, ate a bit and in no time we were running again.
Once we hit 30 miles we all felt that our 28/2 strategy was a bit much and the team decided to change it to 25min run 5 walk. Around this time I also felt I had to work a bit to keep up with Martin and Dave and started to look forward to my 5min walk. It was fantastic to see my friends Mark Thornberry and Allan en route for a bit of support. Mark has been going through a tough time lately and to show him my support I wrote his nickname in sharpie on my arm to remind me that no matter how shit I felt Mark would give anything to be racing this too if he could (Mark, I will never moan about losing my running mojo again).
As the miles dropped away I began to feel worse and worse and by the time we were due to walk I was already quite a few metres away from the rest of the A team. As the aid stations are all at least 25miles apart, from time to time we would stop at shops for fuel, with our first pit stop at Windsor, for an ice cream, water and a coke. As we approached aid station 2 at 55 miles I really began to struggle to keep up, I really wanted to walk to compose myself and that’s what I did, whilst Martin and Dave disappeared into the distance. Plan A was starting to fade and I realised I had to listen to my body and decided it was time to start my own strategy. My best way to describe ultra-running is that it is a series of up and downs, it doesn’t matter how crap you feel, it does always get better; you just need to keep moving through the shit!
|Mark was going to run the Thames Ring with me!|
I arrived in CP2 feeling better after the walk, I was quick topping up my drink, ate a bit and Martin and Dave waited for me. We again revised our strategy and now we were walking for 5min and running for 15min. For some reason I was desperate to leave the Thames Path and get into the Grand Union Canal in London for a change of scenery. The weather had been perfect all day, overcast and cool and I was looking forward to an even cooler evening.
Having left the Thames Path, we were running the streets of London to find the canal in Brentford and I started to struggle again and my friends slowly disappeared into the distance with two other runners. Once on the canal I managed to catch Martin at a water tap and I told him to not worry about me, from now on I definitely had to run at my own race, at whatever felt comfortable. They all left and I took the time to put my jacket on and started running again, feeling relieved that I wasn’t delaying my team mates and that I could dictate my own strategy.
I enjoyed a really good section of running through the night to checkpoint 3 at around 80miles, I was craving hot food then and enjoyed eating spaghetti with frankfurters and a cup of tea, to my surprise Dave and Martin were there and enjoying a sit down. We left the aid station together but they soon disappeared into the distance again.
A few miles later I was in Rickmansworth where I knew there was a big supermarket where I bought the first of many chicken wraps I would eat during the next three days and some apple juice. I was now in familiar territory, having covered that section of the Grand Union Canal many times. As I got into Watford I saw Ryan and Tanya and after a night of running it was great to see familiar faces. Ryan was the very first person to inspire me to do an ultra, and no doubt it was a real lift to see him.
I passed the 100-mile mark in around 23h15 just after the M25 bridge, that’s when I caught up with John and Gary, and we shared some miles playing ‘chase that barge’, where we would run to the next canal boat I picked and then walk a few metres. It kept us motivated until we arrived in Apsley where we used the corner shop in the marina for some supplies and a mini break on a bench.
Soon enough we were arriving in CP4 in Berkhamsted, 105 miles, where we were able to use a proper toilet and where I changed into clean lycra shorts, underwear and a chance to properly re-lube - ultra running can be very kinky! Hot food was available and I thoroughly enjoyed a bacon sandwich a cuppa and some fresh fruit.
During the next section to Tring and Leighton Buzzard I felt really great and ran lots, the weather was again superb, slightly warmer than the day before but still overcast and being on the Grand Union meant I had taps available for water quite regularly so I didn’t need to find any shops.
Going through my hometown was superb, I had friends appearing at every bridge to say hello and show their support. First it was Jacquie, then Mark Ironmate, then my guitar teacher Jeff was at the pub, Matt on his bike and finally at Tesco I met my wife, daughters and Karen. I quickly dashed into the supermarket for another chicken wrap and some apple juice and as I left I gave Anna specific orders to buy me a MaccyD’s crispy chicken wrap and some more apple juice for later at MK.
Running out of Leighton Buzzard felt like a supernatural experience, I have run that section of the canal hundreds of times but somehow everything looked so different, as if I didn’t belong in that environment. Tiredness was taking hold and my mind was starting to play tricks on me. Anyway, leaving Leighton Buzzard by the 3 Locks I saw Eve, Rhiannon, Chris and StuDisco (another one who inspired me to go ultra). As I approached Bletchley, I also spotted Verity and then Tom and it wasn’t too long before I arrived at the Milton Keynes CP where my wife was waiting for me with that chicken wrap and some more supplies for the next leg. I sat down for another 10mins, Alex and her boys were there to see me and soon Jo and Chris arrived and everyone said how great I looked. I wanted to make the most of daylight so I didn’t hang around for too long. We were now halfway through the race and the next checkpoint was where I was planning my first sleep.
|Eve got a picture of me from the farm.|
As I left Milton Keynes, Mark Haynes popped out onto the course and let me know he’d meet me at the next aid station with a bed ready for me in his campervan. As it got dark I started to feel crap again, which is nothing unusual after over 40 hours on two feet with zero sleep, so I stopped to get my headtorch out and decided to take some ProPlus to pick me up a bit and see me through the next section. As I approached a bridge near Roade I hear someone shouting my name and it was Andrew from the tri club who finished had a training session with the club and came to show his support. As I left him I started feeling better and was again running well and soon I approached Stoke Bruerne and was now looking forward to get past Blissworth tunnel.
A few locks before the tunnel I noticed a person, whom appeared to be a tall man wearing a high vis jacket, he had a hand torch and two dogs on a lead. As I got within 15 metres, I called out good evening but he didn’t reply and the dogs started barking at me. I stopped moving and asked if the dogs were ok, I explained I was taking part in a race and just wanted to get to the other side of Blissworth tunnel. He didn’t reply and every time I took a step forward he’d also take a step forward with the torch shining in my face and the dogs would bark. I repeatedly said I didn’t mean any harm and I just wanted to get past Blissworth, but this resulted with him taking a step torwards me with the dogs barking and snapping. I was now wide awake and my adrenaline was running high, and I felt furious and helpless. I had had enough and got my phone out to ring the police, but he must have seen me and came walking towards me with the dogs barking leaving me with no option but to turn and run back. I got in touch with the police, explained the problem and they said if local police was available they would come. Jonathan, who was also racing caught up with me and I explained the situation and then rang the organisers to explain and they advised me that it was possible to do a diversion using local roads. Jonathan then managed to find the route on a map and we were moving in the right direction again.
We passed Blissworth and we decided to stick together to the next aid station and adrenaline was wearing off and I was feeling really tired and looking forward to a sleep. We took turns to lead as that section of the canal was overgrown everywhere. Here I started hallucinating, with plants starting to look like scary faces, and the little daisies on the ground looking like an army of little skulls all ready to eat me for their dinner. Consciously I knew they weren’t real and it was quite funny but I was desperate to get into the aid station for a sleep to get my brain together again.
Eventually we arrived into check point 6 - Nether Heyford at 156 miles and as promised, Mark Haynes was waiting for me. I changed in to clean shorts, underwear and socks, I had some warm soup and got into the back of Mark’s campervan and gave him instructions to wake me up in two hours. I fell asleep within 5min and slept like a log using a bag under my legs to elevate them a bit. As agreed, Mark woke me up and I felt so much better. It was now daylight; I ate some food, had a cup of tea, packed my bag with more supplies (another chicken wrap and some grapes) for another leg and thanked Mark for his help. Before this event I was worried about sleeping then having to wake up and get moving again but I felt ok, the first mile was hard work but once my legs warmed up they were fine.
|156 miles done, 2hrs sleep and ready to go again.|
I ran a few miles, and then walked a bit but I was in high spirits and I didn’t have any doubt in my mind that I was going to finish the race. I was now looking forward to reaching the Oxford Canal, as race statistics agree that runners making it to the Oxford Canal will mostly finish the race. I passed Karen who was walking very slowly, we chatted for a couple of minutes but I was moving well so pressed on and a few minutes later Jonathan passed me running and looking very strong. Shortly after I made a quick stop at a canal shop to buy an ice cream and some Coke for the next miles and just kept moving. Hours went by without seeing a soul apart from a few hellos to strangers along the canal.
As the temperature rose, my undercarriage chaffing worsened and I had to stop briefly to readjust my bits and reapply the lube (for my birthday, Anna had generously given me some called Butt Shield!). There was some temporary relief but the area didn’t look or feel great at all. Oh well, now it was a case of run and walk but just keep moving forward. JC was waiting for me at a bridge, I explained to him my problems but he encouraged me saying I had plenty of time in the clock and there was no runner behind for many miles.
Eventually I got closer to the aid station and Baz, who was volunteering there, came out to meet me along the towpath and we walked together into the aid station. A hot bacon sandwich and some coke went down very well; I ate some fresh fruit, packed my pack for the next leg and spent a few minutes in a tent sorting out my knackered nether regions. It was great to see Paul Mason there looking considerably better after being taken off to hospital two days earlier at aid station 2 when he was really sick, and showing absolute class by coming back to cheer us on. I didn’t spend too long there as again I wanted to make the most of the most of the daylight. I tried running out of the aid station but within a few metres I realised it was causing too much discomfort and that’s when I adopted my ‘John Wayne’ walking style. I turned on my GPS watch and noticed my walking speed was around 17min per mile, which I thought wasn’t too bad and I made a conscious effort to keep walking at that pace as I knew my running was over at that point. JC, Kathryn and Ian rode their bikes to the canal to meet me and show their support, and I was in great spirits and explained to them my new strategy and carried on. It was a good 10 miles to Banbury, the next biggest town and my last chance to buy supplies before it got dark.
|Cowboy walking style working a treat.|
Every now and then someone on a canal boat would ask me what I was doing. A man in his seventies asked me, and when I told him he raised his eyebrows, then he asked me if I was doing it for a charity which I replied yes, he then disappeared into his boat without saying a word and came back with a pound coin for me, which choked me up quite a bit.
The shops in Banbury were all closed but I found a McDonalds and enjoyed my umpteenth chicken wrap and some Coke on a bench and got a few funny looks from passers-by. I phoned Mark to tell him how I was getting on and gave him an ETA for the next aid station. As I left Banbury the canal path got increasingly worse with each mile, really overgrown, and very narrow in places with not a soul in sight. What I really didn’t want to see was another nutter with dogs.
As it got darker it started raining, so I put all my layers on, as since I wasn’t running I was feeling the cold. The good news being that my chaffing wasn’t getting worse and my cowboy style walking was paying off. Again I was hallucinating in the dark with the daisies becoming little skulls and bigger plants and flowers looking like faces, I used that as a distraction to keep me entertained. Having run through this section in March I knew how rubbish the canal was there but I also knew that this was the last really bad area of the canal. I kept moving forward counting down the number of bridges, and eventually I saw a couple of headlights in the distance. It was Ian, Neil and Karrie who had been for a night swim in Reading and came over to the checkpoint to cheer me on, so we walked a few metres to the aid station together and I told them how things were going. At the aid station, Mark was again waiting for me with a bed ready in his campervan. Glyn, who had inspired me to do the Thames Ring two years ago, was volunteering at the aid station and he prepared me some soup. Karrie was kind enough to lend me a dry robe so that I could sort my bits out without having to be naked in the cold night air. With a full belly and cleanish clothes, I went for another two hour sleep. I had contemplated not sleeping here and pushing to the finish but with my hallucinations I decided it was best to try recharging my batteries a bit.
|With Neil and Karrie after 205 miles.|
Mark woke me up with another chicken wrap and some soup and then I was moving again. My Skechers Go Run 400 had been brilliant up to then but were still very soggy from the previous section in the rain so I decided to change to a dry pair, and I used Skechers Go Run 4 for the last two sections. It was just over 4am on Sat, I had now covered 205 miles and been going since Wed 10am apart from the four hours’ sleep. It was ‘only’ 45 miles to go, I didn’t care how long it would take me but I really didn’t want to go through another night of hallucinations.
A few miles after leaving the aid station, Bob Wild walked past me using a stick he found on the trail, we talked for a bit but he soon disappeared in the distance, moving strongly and with purpose. I thought his stick was a great idea and keep an eye out for one for myself.
I went through a couple of sticks and eventually found one that was appropriate for my height, it worked a treat but I was worried I was breaking the race rules since walking poles aren’t allowed. I rang Lindley, the race director, who wasn’t pleased to have been woken up before 7am. I explained my chaffing problems and the use of a stick and he said if I found it on the trail then that was fine.
|Arriving in Abingdon like Gandalf!|
I moved on with the stick, I then found another one and marched on like Gandalf. The sticks gave great relief as I could spread my legs just that little wider preventing my raw ‘tes and tickles’ from rubbing the sides of my legs too much. As I got closer to Oxford, the underfoot conditions of the canal improved considerably and I could see more houses, boats and eventually people as it got lighter.
It was now about 7am on Saturday and I spotted a sign for a nearby tea room, I fancied a hot cup of tea but unfortunately it was shut. However their outbuildings were not and there was an immaculate toilet there which felt like a luxury hotel, boasting real toilet paper, hand wash and paper towels. It may sound funny, but I swear that was the BEST poo I have ever had. I took the opportunity to clean and treat my chaffing and to wash my face. I left the toilet respectable and marched on with a big smile, singing quietly to myself every song that I knew which kept me entertained for quite a while.
Getting to Oxford was a great booster; I was now back on the Thames Path again and although quite a few miles away, I could already see the figurative light at the end of the tunnel. As I entered the Thames Path, I saw Jonathan, who had helped me find the diversion two nights before and he decided to join me, as he also couldn’t run having developed a problem with his ankle. I told him he didn’t need to look at the map anymore as I knew that section of the route inside out. We talked all the way to Abingdon recounting our tales of the last 3 days, the highs and the lows.
As we arrived into the last aid station in Abingdon we agreed to stick together for the last 18 miles to the finish. At the aid station Mark Haynes was there with Chris and Louise, Jonathan’s parents and his wife. We were in high spirits, the day was quite hot now and I ate lot of fruits, grapes, strawberries, melon and some Coke. A big thank you the volunteer who gave me 10p to use the proper loo! Again, I treated my undercarriage and I was ready for the next and final section of this great adventure.
|18 miles to go, still smiling.|
As we left I thanked everybody and told Jonathan this was going to be like the last stage of the Tour de France into Paris, we were now celebrating and nothing would stop us. Jonathan was really great company for that last section, we talked about everything, work, family, hobbies, adventures of our youth and our love for ultra-running. I couldn’t have asked for better company. On our way to Benson, we spotted Fiona and her daughter who had driven all the way from Leighton Buzzard to cheer us on, and we stopped for a quick photo opportunity, thanked them for their support and carried on. As we got to Benson Lock we had a mere 8 miles to finish, we had both been suffering a bit and I made the call to stop for a reviving ice cream and an ice cold Coke in a busy restaurant there. It was quite hot for us now, and the stop did us a world of good and as we marched to the finish I could already taste the beer waiting for me in Goring.
|With Fiona a bit before Benson Lock.|
I phone Anna and said my ETA in Goring was around 8pm. Jonathan and I were confident that we’d finish before it got dark again.
With one last field to cover, I dropped my sticks and we could now see the bridge into Goring and we could hear people shouting to us from the bridge. I think I gave Jonathan a (smelly) hug and thanked him for his company. As we crossed the bridge into Goring, my girls ran towards me and gave me a big hug, my wife Anna was there with Mark Haynes, Louise, Glyn, Paul Mason, Jonathan’s parents and his wife. We crossed the finish line together in 83hrs and 1 gruelling minute, having covered 250miles on two feet and in joint 8th place. Lindley placed some ridiculously heavy medals around our necks and the job was done.
|With all my princesses!|
|A few metres from the finish with Jonathan and the girls.|
Thames Ring 250 was an amazing experience and definitely one I will treasure for a very long time, and whilst there were some lows there was not a minute where I lost the faith that I would finish. I dealt with my problems as they came up, kept putting one leg in front of the other and was very grateful that physically and mentally I could do this, I really didn’t want to take this opportunity for granted. But would I do this again? Never say never!
I want to say a huge thanks to Lindley, the race director and his army of volunteers. It is the volunteers that are the heart of ultra-running, I am so thankful for your time looking after us and putting on this great event. I particularly want to thank my friend Glyn Raymen, you’ve inspired me to do a lot of events and I always see you volunteering at every opportunity you have. You’re a real gem to the ultra-running community my friend.
|The Three Amigos!|
I also want to thank everybody who messaged me during the race and came out to cheer me on during the event; you have no idea what a boost you all gave me, a massive thank you to you all. Big thanks to my team Martin and Dave for the company, help and useful tips, the banter and our lovely recce along the Oxford Canal in March.
A very special THANK YOU to my friend Mark Haynes who drove around the course as my race- bitch, you made my race so much easier and I’ll be forever grateful to you for your time and support. So if you want do it in two years’ time then I will return the favour.
Thank you to Anna, Bella and Katie for putting up with my obsession for endurance race training and the racing; you know it means the world to me to be able to do this but without your tolerance and support I wouldn’t be able to do it.
One last massive thank you to everybody who donated to War Child UK! This race has a finish rate of just over 40% and I was really worried that I have to apologise to you all if I didn’t finish and had taken your money. I put my worries to one side and started my fundraiser to help kids affected by war around the globe. My goal was raise £1000 but with your help I raised over £2800 including the UK Gift Aid. I am truly overwhelmed by your generosity in helping this worthy cause.