Written by Paul Ali - http://ultraavon.com
The first weekend in February and its time for the Thames Trot, my annual early season run and a benchmark of my fitness after the festive period.
Truth be told I had a bit of an end of year slump. I also picked up a knee injury in November and it was suggested I take 6 weeks off and rest. I took 2 weeks off and then started some light jogging and plodded my way through the Marcothon (running 3 miles or 25 mins every day in December). I was trying to keep a balance between keeping some level of fitness and allowing the knee to heal gradually.
At the start of January, the knee was slowly improving so the plan had been to increase the volume of miles without trying to push it and I managed to achieve a 300-mile month admittedly with little quality running.
December and January saw high levels of rainfall meaning for the second year running the Thames Path was flooded in various sections and it was looking odds on that the run would be re-routed again.
A few days before the race, we received the updated route instructions, which confirmed the need to divert the race away from the river and follow some roads and paths parallel to the river. Unfortunately the rain continued up until the night before which meant a couple more late route diversions as areas of the Thames Path which had been 50/50 the day before were now flooded.
I have to be honest and say I quite like running along the normal Thames Path route and was a little disappointed that once again we couldn’t run the original route but there isn’t much that could be done in these circumstances.
A couple of days before the race, I started to suffer a bit of a cold and sore throat and had a couple of sleepless nights. I also hadn’t really tapered for the run either which meant I was on a bit of a downer at the start and honestly wasn’t really looking forward to running 46 miles. However, as I have a streak going at the Thames Trot (I have completed all 5 races previously) there was no question of not completing the race.
I travelled up to the start of the race with fellow runners Jim Seaton and Michael Sartorious in a less than positive mood. I bumped into loads of familiar faces at the start and it was good to see my buddy Stouty making his return to Ultra running after venturing to the dark side (triathlons) last year.
We had several runners from the Reading Joggers also taking part in their first Ultra and it was good to see people from the club out running and others taking the time out to supporter them out on the route during the day. I am sure everyone appreciated seeing a friendly face and word of encouragement along the route.
I stood on the start line dressed in 4 layers shivering waiting for the off and was stood behind Ed Catmur looking a little under-dressed in just a running vest, brave guy.
A few minutes later we started the race. The first part of the route was diverted away from the lock as the river was flooded which meant no mad dash to get to the lock and crossing point before 200 other people. The leaders shot off quite quickly and I hung in with Michael and Jim in a secondary group of runners but soon lost sight of them as I had to stop early on for a comfort break.
I tagged along behind another group of runners as we headed along the streets and roads towards Abingdon. Unfortunately, we overshot a turn to the bridge at Culham and had to double back and joined another group of runners just before Checkpoint 1.
I had been averaging around 8 – 8.30m/m as I arrived at Checkpoint 1 and hadn’t been feeling too bad at that point. The strepsils were handy for the sore throat though.
Picture by Wave Photography
I caught up with Stouty briefly but plodded on ahead after Checkpoint 1 as we followed the diversion to Appleford which was where I caught up with 4 Reading Joggers (Alex, Michael, Brian and Maurice) who were running together as a group. We turned onto an off-road section and slipped and slid our way along the path to Little Wittenham passing through a flooded field and getting our feet soaked. We then picked up the route towards Shillingford and the second Checkpoint at Benson.
I trotted in here with the pace having slowed slightly but this was probably due to the ground conditions. I saw Jim’s wife who said Michael and Jim were a couple of minutes ahead, I didn’t tarry here and jogged on. My legs were feeling a little sore and the knee was creaking a bit from the earlier road miles but this was the furthest I had run solidly for some time now and was probably to be expected.
We headed towards Goring along the roads and picked up a footpath before Wallingford Bridge. I caught up with Dave Ayling around here and we ran together for a while. I think we took a wrong turn somewhere as we found what we thought was the correct footpath on the left before Wallingford Bridge and as we followed this to the end we seemed to intersect a group of other runners in front of us heading across the field. No big deal as both footpaths seemed to get the to the same place. We worked our way onto a really muddy and wet section of the Ridgeway which wasn’t good news for me.
I had a bit of a long-standing groin niggle last year which had started to settle down as I rested (slacked off) towards the end of the year. Unfortunately, the muddy conditions meant I was slipping and sliding all over the place. I had decided to wear the Scott Kinbalua Trail Shoe which I like as they are soft and comfortable but they aren’t great in the mud (but what shoes are?). At some point on this part of the route my right leg slipped and I stumbled over and felt the familiar tug of the groin. I had to ease off here as I felt uncomfortable and this started a little negative spiral both physically and mentally as I slowed to a walk and the rest of guys disappeared off in the distance.
This section was horrible, it was wet, muddy, slow going (as I was walking) and I was getting frustrated. There was one moment when all these negative emotions were building up in my head and I shouted an expletive just as another runner ran past me, so I must have sounded like a right idiot! We also had a lovely section of the path which had totally flooded and you had to wade knee deep in water.. I think GoBeyond called this bit “character building”.
I spent the next 5 miles walking to the next Checkpoint. Tremayne Cowdry caught me up and said hello and I tried to run along with him but I just couldn’t run at that point and had to back off and carry on walking.
My wife Sal sent me a text at that point to see how the run was going and she once again proved her uncanny ability to contact me at one of those “low” points. I sent a short reply along the lines of “rubbish.. injured.. walking” and another text to Michael Sartorious as we were travelling back home together and I wanted to give fair warning I might be later than expected.
I headed into the Checkpoint 3 at Goring and saw a couple of familiar faces and grumbled a bit there (sorry). James Greaves from the club trotted past me at this point looking like he was well ahead of last years time.
Taking stock at Checkpoint 3 (Picture thanks to Kris Peter)
I grabbed some food and drink and started marching out towards Goring Station and the footpath which leads to Whitchurch. I was thinking about how far there was to the end, how my pace had slowed and how it was going to be a long day. I passed Ken from the running club who was out supporting and asked to borrow a head torch from him as at my current pace I didn’t think I would finish the race before it was dark.
However, not long after seeing Ken I had my “man up” moment. I’ve been asked to do a short talk in a couple of weeks about my personal experience of running a few races I did last year (Thames Ring, GUCR etc.) for some of the runners preparing for the T184 race later this year. At that point I felt like a bit of fraud being asked to do a talk as I was making really hard work of a “short” ultra.
When I started thinking about all the tips and tricks I used to keep myself motivated, I realised I had been ignoring every one of them! It’s time to dig yourself out of this malaise I thought to myself and I started to work out my immediate plan. Rather than think about the rest or the race and the finish time, I narrowed it down to the next checkpoint and focused on that. I had taken some ibuprofen after the earlier slip and it was now time to try and run, I also put on the MP3 player to try and distract my mind from its wandering thoughts and I started to plod.
I was very familiar with the next section of the course and continued my slow jog along Whitchurch, through Purley towards Checkpoint 4. I passed James again who was still looking good and arrived at the Checkpoint to see a few of the club runners who (in a kind way) took the p*ss out of me for not having a great day so far.
I didn’t stop here for long and carried on up the hill and back onto the footpath passing Arthur (the RJ Coach) and a couple of others and I stopped briefly for a photo and a quick word and admitted whilst I wasn’t have a great day so far I was starting to run a bit more know so hopefully would finish before it got dark.
We followed the river to the Ibis Boatyard which was flooded and you were diverted off along Portman Road and back onto the Thames Path. This is all local to me and I had no worries about navigation here but it was good to see some signage up directing the runners along this part of the race.
I started to drift past a couple of people now as we got back onto the Thames Path and ran past my workplace at the back of Vastern Road and ontowards Sonning. The Thames Path was flooded here in several sections and I got my feet soaked a couple of times.
I managed to catchup with Michael Sartorious here who had slowed a bit and was jog/walking and we chatted briefly before I pressed on ahead. I was maintaining just over 10m/m pace with the odd walk breaks as my knee was feeling the distance now and I felt better easing off it occasionally.
The route took us into Thames Valley Park but despite the signage saying straight ahead there was a chap standing guard directing runners towards the Nature Reserve area of Thames Valley Park as one of the companies didn’t want runners crossing their property. No big deal as I knew the route and headed through the David Lloyd Car Park and onto the Nature Reserve. The path splits into two here with the left one leading to the same point as the right hand path but in a slightly longer loop (this is the Reading Parkrun area) and I called a runner ahead back to follow me down the right hand path which was a great idea until we arrived at a fallen tree which blocked our route. We clambered over the fallen tree and picked up the Thames Path again just before Sonning Lock.
I then spotted Mike from the club ahead and spoke we briefly before turning onto Sonning Bridge and then following the road to the next checkpoint where I bumped into Maurice and Alex from the club. I didn’t wait too long but grabbed some food and started to march up the hill munching on some Jelly Babies as Alex and a another guy called Paul trotted on ahead and I believe Maurice then waited for Mike at the checkpoint.
Arthur was parked along the road further ahead taking a few photos and I felt it necessary to jog for the benefit of the camera but once I broke into a run, I carried on towards Dunsden and then through to Binfield.
Pictured running along Playhatch Rd (Picture by Arthur Abbot)
It was this section where I went slightly astray last year and I was glancing at the route marking on the Garmin and mentally recalling the instructions to make sure I didn’t repeat the same mistake again this year.
I was running reasonably well at this point (a pretty good turn around by now) and bumped into Tremayne Cowdry again and Dave Ayling who was having a fit of hiccups which he couldn’t shift which made an interesting (hic) conversation (hic). I carried on ahead and caught up with Alex and Paul again a short while later.
Alex, Paul and I then stuck together for the last few miles. We found the signage marking the late course diversions (although may have overshot one footpath late on but we get ourselves onto the right path). The Garmin giving us some assurance that we were heading in the right direction.
Alex was looking pretty strong here and was keen to finish as quickly as he could and kept the groups pace up. The last few miles were all sub 10m/m although the ground conditions were good as we were running on roads and good paths apart from one little muddy section.
The route pretty much took us directly into Henley town centre and we spotted the traffic lights marking the right hand turn to Henley Station and followed the road around the back of the station finishing in 7hrs 44mins.
I was immediately sent back for a finishing line photograph as the photographer hadn’t managed to snap all three of us individually and I pulled an absolutely terrible “slow motion run crossing the finish line” pose (haven’t seen the photo yet but it’s going to look really really cheesy) before being scanned in and getting a slip of paper with your times and splits.
Terrible pose… hangs head in shame.
I met Sue and Jim who had both finished a couple of minutes ahead of me and then got changed into some warm clothes and waited by the finish line to watch the other Reading Joggers coming in. Again, it was good to see other runners from the club out supporting their fellow runners.
The route was 46 miles in total and I finished in 7.44. So it wasn’t an absolutely terrible day at all but it was about an hour slower than last year on a pretty similar route. I probably lost a good half an hour during my long walk at the midway point but have to accept that my fitness is not where it was at the same point last year, the knee is still not quite 100% and I should try and avoid muddy races where I might slip over and aggravate the groin (or rest!).
After steadily improving my personal time from finishing pretty much last in 2009 to a not bad time in 2013 (relative to me not the Ultra speedsters) this is the first year I have gone backwards with a slower time at the Thames Trot.
Therefore, there’s some hard miles to be run over the next few months prior to some of the events I have planned in the summer. The positive side was that I’ve banked a nice long run and managed to work myself out of the malaise that struck me during the mid-point of the race to finish reasonably well. Unfortunately (thankfully?) I have had an enforced period of rest with er.. a “bad case of man-flu” so it’s no running for few days until I feel better.
Congratulations to all the Reading Joggers who completed the race and especially well done to those people who ran an Ultra for the first time, great achievement guys! In fact Alex, Mike and Maurice (who I believe were all running their first Ultra’s) finished in a far better time than I did on my first attempt, so a great performance guys.
I hope you weren’t totally put off by the weather and ground conditions and re-routing and will try another Ultra in the future. The Compton 40 is April if you fancy it and it’s not too far away?
Pictured with fellow Reading Jogger Dave Ayling at the finish (Picture by Adrian Lee)
Finally, thanks to the GoBeyond team. The flooding didn’t make things easy, the heavy rain the couple of days before and last minute directions made it even more difficult and I’m sure a few people will have got lost somewhere en-route but I appreciate the fact that the GoBeyond team got the race on despite all the issues with the weather and did as much as they could with route maps, signage and markings and making sure the race did go ahead. Let’s hope the weather Gods are kinder in 2015, I’ve got a streak to continue.