Written by Paul Ali - http://ultraavon.com
I didn’t finish the T184 Endurance Run and it hurts at the moment. I’m actually writing this report before the race has even finished and there are still people out on the course battling away to finish this adventure.
I have a lot of respect for each of these people as they have shown more willing and determination than I did at this event and its tough to admit that.
So let’s back-track a bit and talk about how events unfolded…
The T184 Endurance Run is a new event on the Ultra running calendar and something a little bit different.
The challenge awaits (picture from the end of the race)
The event involves a 184-mile run (jog/walk/crawl) covering the full length of the Thames Path from the Thames Barrier in London to the source of the Thames near Kemble. Competitors are also required to be self-supported which meant you had to carry all your food and equipment for the race with the exception of water, which would be provided at one of 7 Checkpoints along the way although competitors were also able to use locks for supplies. One of the principles of the race was that it did not allow any external support such as stopping off at a pub or shop for food, pacing or support crews. Each competitor would also be GPS tracked courtesy of devices provided by GoTek.
GoTek race tracking
The Race Director Shane who I’ve known for a few years, approached me over a year ago with the idea for the race and asked if I would be interested in providing some input into the race from a runners perspective and so I have worked with Shane and provided some input into the race such as the rules, kit lists; tested the tracking devices and answered questions from people via the Facebook group. It was interesting in seeing the race develop from a concept to an actual event. I will be interested in seeing people’s feedback after the event to see what can be improved/made clearer going forward as I feel some responsibility towards this event.
However, on race day that’s where my job ended and I lined up at the start line near the Thames View Café with 75 other runners all fully loaded with kit and equipment.
All squeezed into a Salomon Slab 12
I was pretty happy with my kit selection. I had managed to squeeze all the mandatory kit into my Salomon Slab 12 pack (stretching the outer mesh area to a maximum!) and weighed my pack at 8kg, which included 2 litres of water. There was a minimum compulsory amount of 1.5L of water but it was recommended that people carry more in view of the distances between water stops.
My only last minute “panic buy” was to swap out the Jetboil (a cooking device) and make use of a “Pocket Rocket” cooking device (Paola Russell told me to be very careful when Googling this) device which was less bulky. I had made he decision to go with both freeze dried meal packs and lots of snacks and was carrying about 9000 calories in total.
Race registration and briefing
Race registration was slick, with waivers to be completed, kit checks, collecting your GPS device and the option of pre-race taping courtesy of Paul Coker from Rocktape. Each competitor was required to complete a disclaimer confirming they were carrying the mandatory kit but kit checks were completed on a sample of people (by means of a random draw). It seemed to be a sensible and practical way of doing this with the numbers involved and I hope those people who were randomly selected were not too put out having to unload and re-pack their kit. In addition kit checks could be undertaken during the race to ensure competitors were carrying everything they should be. (Update: However, having heard that one or two people may have been caught out with insufficient kit i.e. sufficiently warm sleeping system, then it seems likely that mandatory kit checks for all competitors will be required for future events which I agree with).
Paul Coker from Rocktape doing some pre-race taping
It’s fair to say I wasn’t fresh at the start of the race having recently completed the North Downs Way 100 less than two weeks ago was not ideal preparation. Those who read my previous North Downs Way blog will remember my tale of woe and misery as I pretty much marched the second half of the race and finished in an unconvincing manner and admittedly having not done the training I would like to have done for the event due to other races/work/holidays etc. I knew this, but with a generous 80 hour time limit on paper (meaning the event was walk able) and this was not planned as any sort of ‘A’ race I thought I could just get as far as I could running and then grind out the finish with a walk when necessary. Realistically, I was hoping to finish sometime Sunday evening/night so was expecting to be out for 2 nights and into a 3rd.
We set off from the Thames Barrier at Friday at 10.30am and headed out through London on the South side of the Thames towards the Cutty Sark where we would go underneath the tunnel and follow the North side until the first Checkpoint. I had planned to run with Jim Seaton and Michael Sartorius for company. Unfortunately Michael didn’t make the start due to urgent work commitments and so Jim and I ran together and we were accompanied by Richard Ebbs and a guy called Peter.
Pictured with Jim Seaton at the start
I could immediately feel the weight of my pack on my ankles and achilles. I run home from work most days with a pack but nothing as heavy as this or as long as this (lesson learned to practice with your kit in advance) and this was creating some additional pressure which was uncomfortable but manageable. I was thankful that I had taped my shoulders in advance with Rocktape so I didn’t suffer any chaffing or rubbing here.
We made our way through the streets of London with a trail of competitors spreading out as each mile passed and the occasional person leapfrogging each other. There were a couple of minor points where the route twists and turns down small roads, lanes and alleyways and you had to keep an eye out for the Thames Path signs but no major navigational issues at this point as you were next to the river for most of this leg.
It was quite a warm day and I was soon getting a bit of a sweat on running with this extra weight. Despite that, we covered the first 25-26 miles in 4.5 hours which was pretty good timing and stopped to refill our water bottles, eat some food and take off my shoes and give the feet some airing. We were near the front of the field (top ten at the time) so progressing well but knowing there was a long long way to go.
Having a break at CP1
After a 15-minute stop, three of us (Jim, Richard and I) we were off again to cover another 26-mile leg. Unfortunately, after refilling all your water bottles my pack was once again a couple of kg heavier which wasn’t much fun.
We headed out of London through Richmond and into an area I am partially familiar with having run the Thames Path100 a few times. I had the route programmed into my Garmin with a marker for bridge crossings and I didn’t need to refer to my map as I could keep a quick glance on my watch to remind me of the bridge crossings.
The next leg was more of a run/walk and took us about 5.5 hours at roughly a 4mph pace. With the three of us together, we worked well together with each person prompting the others to run after a brief walk phase and we kept a shuffle on. I was hoping that we would get to the next Checkpoint before it was dark but we didn’t quite make this by an hour having stopped a few miles before the Checkpoint to put our waterproofs on when it started to rain. I had promised myself to put my waterproofs on at the first sign of rain as I didn’t want my body to get wet and cold going into the night leg (or next couple of days).
We arrived at the second Checkpoint where we had planned to cook up some food. My “Pocket Rocket” boiled the water in a few minutes and I was soon scoffing down my Spaghetti Bolognese Extreme Adventure food meal. As I had stopped I put on my Montane Fireball insulated smock jacket (which was my required extra warm layer) to keep myself from cooling down too much and this piece of equipment served me pretty well throughout the race. After a half an hour stop the three of us headed out again.
Cooking up some food at CP2
It was now getting into the night and I think each of us was starting to struggle a little. Physically, we went through a verbal check and all admitted that our ankles and feet were hurting due to the pressure on the ankles and blisters.
There was limited conversation between us, it was just a head down and plod on. Perhaps the realisation of the size of the actual distance of the event was starting to take root in your mind. I was starting to feel a little sleepy and took a caffeine mint which seemed to perk me up.
Plodding along at night
After a couple of hours of marching both Jim and Richard got to a point where they wanted to pause and sleep for a while and I elected to carry on and try and sleep at the next Checkpoint in Henley.
I carried on by myself at a steady pace pretty much walking now. I had one navigational issue during the middle of the where I missed a turn which took me away from the Thames Path and I ended up on a road which upon checking my map ran parallel to the Thames Path and the route appeared to cross further up and so I headed onwards and got back onto the path about 10 minutes later so no big deal but a little annoying I missed a turn I should have spotted.
I managed to catch up with a couple of guys travelling together and was grateful for their company for a while as we had the usual conversation about what races we had completed. We eventually split up (I think they went on ahead when I paused briefly for a break) and I was back by myself trudging along the route.
Sun-rise the next day (somewhere near Henley)
The doubts were already starting to creep as I carried on, the pace was slowing down and I was feeling pretty fatigued. I decided I was going to stop at the next Checkpoint and try and have some rest and sleep.
At Henley, tired and needing some sleep
I got to Henley about 6am in the morning and saw Claire Bond running this Checkpoint. I took some water to fill up my bottles, took off my shoes and climbed into my bivi bag on a park bench and tried to sleep which was unsuccessful. After lying there for half an hour, I couldn’t succumb to sleep and elected to carry on.
Waving goodbye to the Checkpoint crew I headed off towards the next Checkpoint at Streatley through my hometown of Reading. It was cool at first but then as the sun came out it got quite warm and I stripped down to a T-Shirt and Base layer.
I managed to arrive at Thames Valley Park by the time the Reading Park run was starting and got a few waves and cheers from a few Park runners who recognised me which was great and ran through the Park run finish line first (as everyone had just headed out) to mock cheers and applause. I was moving at 3mph pace so now down to a steady walk.
Through Reading I had to battle my way through the Festival crowds who all seemed to be coming in the opposite direction. Not that it affected my pace in any way but I was pleased to eventually get past them.
The distance between Reading and Streatley was 12 miles and it took me 4 hours to get there which was a pretty depressing thought only halfway into the race. I was seriously starting to think about quitting the race. I bumped into Trudy Benzie (the RD’s wife) as I passed near her home in Whitchurch and she kindly tried to lift my mood but I was struggling with this today.
I trudged through Reading and eventually arrived at the Streatley Checkpoint which was being manned by my local running club the Reading Joggers. I slumped into a chair at the Checkpoint cooked up some porridge and then had a brief doze for 30 minutes or so. The guys at the Checkpoint were great trying to lift my mood and to be honest if it hadn’t been for people I knew being there I would have probably quit at that point.
Ankles not looking to great (swollen and sore)
I headed out and carried along towards the next Checkpoint which was a massive 30 miles away in Oxford. It was mid afternoon and I knew that I wouldn’t get to the next Checkpoint until well into the night. I started to get into the habit and stopping at every bench for a sit down and so the pace reduced even further to 2-3mph.
Jim and I had been exchanging the odd text to see how we were both doing, I was desperately hoping he would catch me up for some much needed company as I was in a real black hole now.
I spent the next 5 hours covering about 14 miles and spent all of this agonising over whether I really wanted to continue. Physically, my feet were blistered and ankles and achilles were sore but I have ground out results in the past in a similar physical condition and probably could have done it again. I had 70 miles to go and still had 50 hours to complete this even at the slow pace I was travelling at with a couple of decent sleep breaks it was perfectly doable, uncomfortable physically but doable but I didn’t fancy it. I really didn’t fancy putting myself through a long uncomfortable walk. The memory of doing the same thing at the NDW 100 two weeks ago was a little to fresh, the thought of going into a second night without sleep was not appealing, the memory of marching the last 60 miles of the GUCR with blistered feet and an injured knee was at the back of my mind.
I trudged on but every footstep, every moment I was trying to reason why I should carry on. The small flame that represents motivation and desire was gradually flickering away as I started to solely focus on all the wrong thoughts and emotions. I wasn’t compartmentalising the race into manageable segments, I wasn’t distracting my mind with other thoughts, music or conversation and that small flame was extinguishing until it eventually went out.
I bumped into Martin Pether who I’ve met on a couple of Ultra runs who was out on the Thames Path with his family and we spoke briefly. I admitted I was pretty much done.
The only last resolve I had was the thought about letting my family, friends and other runners (and those in the T184 race down). The self-belief I had built up over a 15 x 100+ miler finishes was being stripped away. Speaking to Martin and admitting I was done made it easier for me to stop (not that I blame you Martin!), it was the first the first step in admitting your failure to the world and so I decided to quit, I just couldn’t face continuing the race in some discomfort for another 20-30 hours. To be clear, the physical discomfort wasn’t great but I mentally just gave up.
I spoke to my wife, Sally-anne and we had a pretty emotional phone call where I confirmed my decision to quit. Sal made every effort to persuade me to carry on, she believed in me at a point when I didn’t believe in myself but I was done, it was over. It was a pretty uncomfortable phone call to be honest especially when speaking to my young Daughter and telling her I was stopping, I wasn’t good enough today and her reply was “…But Daddy, you always finish the races.” That was hard to take.
I phoned to the Race Director Shane although didn’t get through first time and I then phoned and texted a few close friends to confirm I was quitting. Strangely I felt some responsibility to tell a few people I was giving up today, I guess I was giving myself a hard time over my decision. I wasn’t looking for sympathy; I just felt some obligation to admit my failure.
Shane called me back and he kindly arranged a pickup for me at a Pub where I had stopped. Unfortunately, there was a bit of a wait as the support teams were responding to several dropouts at different points in the race but I told him I was going to go for a meal in the Pub and warm up so I wasn’t a high priority if others were in more need.
A quick thanks to the staff at the Barley Mow Pub who despite being fully booked, took pity on my weary state and organised a table I could sit at and eat despite looking and smelling like I had been out for 30 hours without sleep and wait for my collection. The coffee, hot meal and dessert went down very well although I had to put my jacket on again as the shock to the body when stopping was starting to kick in. I was eventually collected by Mark Sewell who was on transport duties and transported home (luckily I didn’t live too far away) which was very much appreciated, thanks Mark.
At the time of writing, I’ve been home for a day, had two nights sleep and the race is still underway!
Congratulations to Karen Hathaway for winning the race in around 48 hours, she looked pretty strong when I saw her out on the course. A massive well done and respect to anyone who finishes this race, definitely a tough one with the distance and self-sufficiency aspects. I’m sorry I wasn’t good enough on the day.
The GPS trackers provided by GoTek worked brilliantly are lasting the distance and have certainly provided some interest in the race to the friends and families and other ultra supporters at home. I have been checking the progress of the other competitors as some make their way to the finish.
It’s important to sit and reflect on the things which did and didn’t go well, I may add to these as I think about things (sulk!) over the next few days.
* The obvious point of this being one race too many! To be honest, this result has been looking more and more likely with a lack of proper preparation and training due to too many other races. Completing another 100 miler less than two weeks before this one wasn’t ideal.
* Race approach. Due to other races, this wasn’t an ‘A’ race and I went in with a relaxed attitude, no proper race plan just a broad window of when I think I would finish and just to enjoy and finish the event. I did the same with the Thames Ring and suffered mentally, I did the same at this race and quit.
* Sleep breaks. I probably need to think about this a bit more. I hadn’t really slept when I stopped but with my (lack of) form with nighttime events should probably plan to try and get some decent sleep breaks. This means I might add a lightweight sleeping bag to my kit list to help me sleep as I just went with a decent bivi bag.
* I was pretty happy with my kit and food selection, I had my pack down to a decent weight and wouldn’t change much here. My best piece of kit was the Montane Fireball Smock insulated jacket which kept me warm when I needed (stopping or going slowly during the night).
* Looking after your feet, ankles and achilles. These were the issues which starting to cause discomfort and create the doubt in my mind. I should have worn a slightly bigger shoe as my toes rubbed and blistered and my feet had swollen despite taping my feet/being hydrated/taking electrolytes. Practicing with the full kit more would possibly get you more used to the weight. Perhaps there’s an argument for using poles if this helps takes a % of the weight off your feet.
* Don’t be weak and give up! For me it’s back to all of the preparation you do before a race to prepare yourself for this type of challenge. I didn’t do the things I would normally do and had only really started my serious race planning (in terms of how I would approach this race) in the last week or so.
I would like to thank the 50+ volunteers who gave up their time and helped support the event and runners which was very much appreciated.
It will be interesting to see people’s feedback from the event. It’s a very long event to support over 4 days and logistically quite challenging. From what I’ve heard so far people’s feedback has been largely positive although with any new race I’m sure there will be some lessons to be learned for future years (upping the mandatory water level to 2L and an extra water point in London springs to mind from my first hand experience).
I will need to rest and see how I recover over the next week or so but the plan was to tackle the Purbeck Marathon, Longmynd Hike/Run and then the Winter 100 in the next 6 weeks (what did I say about over committing on races!).
The Winter 100 is the only “must do” event to complete the Centurion Slam and try and finish the year on a high rather than a low. After that, I need a bit of a break from events and need to rest and refocus for 2015 with an approach of fewer events but with more focus.