From First to Last – My Story of the 2015 T184 Endurance Race
The T184 is a self-supported race from the Thames Barrier to the source of the Thames in the Cotswolds along the Thames Path National Trail. Self-supported in this case means that all kit and supplies are to be carried by the competitor for the entire duration of the race. This includes all food and cooking equipment, clothing (including full wet-weather gear), sleeping equipment, medical kit, torches, maps and water. The time allowed to complete is 80 hours in a single stage with 7 checkpoints to receive water only.
The 2015 t184
Start to Brentford
The day dawned dry and sunny with a few clouds and a light wind. I arrived at the Thames Barrier Café at 0830 and it was already buzzing with crew and competitors. It was good to catch up with some familiar faces and people I had only previously known from social media. This year all entrants’ kit was checked and I was relieved that Paul Ali checked mine off with no issues. It was good to arrive early as there was no panic and plenty of time to get a drink from the café and to chat and relax before the start.
After Shane’s race briefing we all made our way to the start. I was shepherded to the start area with Kevin Mayo. We found ourselves right next to where Shane set up his tablet with the time displayed in large letters. This is what I like about ultra races, no big fanfare, just an announcement, “When it gets to 10:35 you can start.”
When the clock flipped over to 10:35 we all started. As Kevin pointed out I was in first place! This was a “first” for me as I usually take pains to start near the back but, in a race this long, it makes absolutely no difference where you start.
This was only to last about 100 yards as I heard a click and realised the chest strap on my pack had broken. So, first unscheduled stop to look at the damage which revealed the strap anchor had just slipped off of the rail. Fiddly few minutes sliding it back on again and off we go again.
The first bit to the Greenwich foot tunnel is a little industrial but with a fresh mind and legs it was still quite interesting. After the tunnel and on the Isle of Dogs, some colleagues from work were waiting for me, having walked from my firm’s London office at Canary Wharf. A brief chat with them then onwards to the (at times) frustrating section though London: Locked gates, building works and tourists wandering all over the place.
The first checkpoint at Brentford (26 miles) is near a pub but a nice cool pint was not on the cards (all the checkpoints are near pubs – Shane is so sadistic). Overall I was on plan, the weather was good, I was eating my stage 1 food (a couple of ham sandwiches) and felt good.
At the Brentford CP, I took off my shoes and socks, washed my feet then allowed them to dry. I was amazed to find I already had two toe blisters to attend to. I don’t normally get blisters this early and was using the same shoes (Hokas) and socks (DryMax).
Brentford to Windsor
Brentford is perhaps not the best of areas to be off of the beaten track and I was wary of a VERY drunk guy I encountered on the path, weaving and swearing at passers-by. Luckily I avoided any confrontation.
I was glad to eventually reach Teddington; I knew the path was straightforward from here to after Walton Bridge. Along this stretch I was running (leapfrogging) with Johan Swinnen and Tom Kingston. I was amused to see Johan at Hampton Court Palace stopping to fire up the JetBoil. As always, he was in good spirits when I asked.
Not far before Walton Bridge I saw a riverside pub approaching. “How great it would be to just throw in the towel here and stop for a beer and a meal”, I thought. As I passed through the pub there was a guy taking a photo with his phone. Hang on. He has running kit on. Stopped and went back only to see Matt Bevan – he had decided to stop and was DNFing in style with a pint in his hand!
At this point it was getting dark so I stopped to put on my headtorch – a faceplant due to tripping on tree roots in the gloom was something I wanted to avoid.
Past Walton Bridge is a section I know well as I ran it when I was in Chertsey for a training course. I knew to look out for the turning into the woods that is obscured by trees and duly ran through, keeping to the TP signs. Almost immediately, I got a txt from my wife asking if I was taking a rest break as I was off course. Turns out the course missed this bit and carried on around the road.
Running the next section in the dark was uneventful. I was prepared for the Runnymead fields leading up to CP2 seeming to be endless and was not disappointed.
On reaching the CP, I made some food (Spaghetti Pomodoro with a flatbread), replenished my water supply then pushed on.
Windsor to Henley
The plan was to run past Dorney Lake then find a spot to get a couple of hours sleep. However, I figured that I would not reach there much before sunrise so stopped early at 3AM and took a couple of hours sleep in a field just off the path, followed by scrambled eggs and a cup of tea for breakfast. At this point I was still feeling strong and motivated but I had been increasingly bothered by chafing – not something I usually suffer from. I applied Vaseline but this did not seem to be helping much.
The slight adjustments to my plan were not bothering me as I had vowed to stay flexible and not stress about adapting to circumstances. No battle plan survives the first shot fired and it is good to keep this in mind so as not to become demotivated.
This section is quite long (30 miles) so I was glad when I eventually reached Henley at about 1:30 PM. This was slightly ahead of plan.
At this CP the food was Spaghetti Carbonara so I got on with making that. Zoe Thornburgh was having a kip on a bench here and it was amusing to see the reactions of the passers-by as they noticed her. I had tried to sleep here last year so knew there was no point as it was too busy and noisy so I packed up and pushed on.
Henley to Streatley
Although only 20 miles, this feels like a long section. The Reading Festival was on this weekend but there seemed to be less people on the path than last year. On reaching the half-way point of 96 miles, I had been out about 31 hours. I took this to be OK and on plan as the second half would take much longer – especially including a planned long sleep – so I would be able to finish well within the 80 hour cut-off.
The section Whitchurch to Streatley seemed much longer than last year – possibly because last year I had already committed to retiring by this point so was just walking along to the CP or possibly because it had started raining quite heavily. I had planned to push on past Streatley for about 10 miles before sleeping so as to make a decent dent in the 30 mile section. However, I was starting to feel very tired so on reaching Streatley at about 2130hrs, I enquired about the rules: if I were to sleep in the paddock would I be deemed to have left the CP? Or, if I was still there at 2330hrs would I be timed out? Paul Ali assured me that I would be OK. There was a brief moment of panic as a couple of the CP marshals had told me on the way in that the cut-off for Oxford (the next CP) was at 0730hrs! This would only have given 8 hours to complete the 30 mile section. Thankfully this was cleared up – the next cut-off was actually at 1430hrs!
So I set camp for a sleep in the paddock, thankfully during a break in the rain, consulted my plan and found I had allowed eleven hours for the next section. I counted back (on my fingers – I was VERY tired) from the cut-off to get a leaving time. Leave at 0300hrs. And so to sleep for four hours. During the night I heard the voice of Ernie Jewson passing.
Streatley to Oxford
I awoke somewhat refreshed, made breakfast of scrambled eggs, applied what was left of my Vaseline to the chafing (getting really painful now), broke camp and set off carrying my rubbish inside an empty 5 litre water bottle until I found a bin.
Being a little bit more compos mentis than the night before I realised I had made an error. I had counted back from the cut-off time, not from my planned time of arrival at the checkpoint. This left me quite tight on time. I would have to try and push on which was getting increasingly more difficult as I was suffering with the chafing so badly that my foot pain seemed secondary.
It had been raining steadily during the night so the path was muddy and extremely slippery, making going very hard and slow. Suddenly, my right foot slipped sideways underneath me and I pitched over, pack first down the riverbank! I found myself upended like a tortoise, just feet from the river. The bank was overgrown here so, whilst the brambles, the nettles and the thorns had stopped me from sliding into the water, it was going to make getting up again difficult. I took a moment to compose myself and think of the best way to remove myself from this situation without sliding further down the bank. I carefully unclipped my map case and pack then, with much huffing and cursing, managed to turn over and crawl up the bank.
It was at this point I thought I heard something fall out of my pack.
I searched through the vegetation carefully with my head torch in my hand to give a different angle of illumination but found nothing. I regained the path and hauled up my pack. A kit check did not turn up anything missing and a check on myself revealed no injuries other than some minor scratches and stings.
I carried on a little shaken as the outcome could have been much different. Thankfully, no further mishap occurred as I pushed on towards Oxford.
Since I had heard Ernie pass during the night, I had assumed that I was now at the back. Then, out of nowhere, Christina Calderon passed me. Using walking poles and making a good pace, she asked the distance to the CP and said we would have to push to make the cut-off.
Not long after this, Shane called to say I was close to missing the cut-off but I could still make it. I pushed as much as I felt able but by this stage I was suffering so much I would have taken a time-out just as gladly as reaching the CP in time!
I finally saw the CP and saw I had just missed the cut-off. When I reached it my watch said 1433hrs – 3 minutes after the 1430hrs cut-off. I started hand my number in when I was told that I should be OK. The CP marshall called Shane who then spoke to me and said that, because we had not started until 1035hrs, all the cut-offs had moved on my 5 minutes. I was back in the race!
I made a quick turnaround and set off to maximise the time for the next section.
Oxford to Radcot
For the first few miles, Christina and I kept passing each other. By the time we had reached Shifford Lock cut we had teamed up by unspoken agreement, helping each other with navigation. Every landmark seemed to take much longer to appear that it should, leading to doubts at times as to whether we were on the right track. During this section my mobile phone, my watch and my charger (which during testing had lasted for many more charges) had died. I was concerned that I would not be allowed to continue from the next CP without a working phone.
Eventually we arrived at the Radcot Bridge CP. I was pleased to see Paul Stout manning the CP with another guy (whose name I do not know) who helpfully put some charge back into my phone. Some other runners (including Ernie and Dave Baker) were already sleeping here. They were planning to leave the CP at 0330hrs so as to only need just over 2mph pace to reach the final checkpoint. I decided to take an hour’s sleep then have some food so asked the guys to wake me at 0300hrs.
Radcot to Castle Eaton
Having made food (soup) and packed up I was ready to go and set off slowly, knowing the others would soon catch me up. Sure enough, before too long they all came trooping past. All except Christina. I followed them but in the long growth, they soon moved out of sight. I got to a fork in the path and had just decided which was the right way when I saw a head torch behind be so I waited for Christina to catch up and we continued together. We found the navigation tricky here as both of our most powerful head torches had run out of charge and the backup torches were not bright enough to be able to see the river, and therefore confirm we were on the right path. So there was a lot of indecision and going wrong and a few cows!
At one point we passed some WWII pill boxes so, as it was raining steadily and heavily, and I was getting cold, I used the shelter to add a layer and put on waterproof trousers.
There is a horrible stretch of road at Inglesham. Christina commented that she had expected to be able to make up some time here but the only path was a grass verge for most of this stretch. Near the turn off there was a tarmac path so I was able to pick up the pace a little bit. I could see Christina up ahead, unsure if she was at the correct road to turn off. I had recced this on Google Street View so I motioned her over.
It was soon obvious that we were pushing the cut-off again. Two mph was the average required for the section but this had to account for all stops and nav errors. Christina decided to pick up the pace. I tried to keep up but she was soon out of sight.
I reached a junction in the track that did not look anything like the map so started to doubt I was on the right path. As my phone and my watch had died I was using the paper map but had no way of fixing my position. I went to get my compass from my map pouch only to find it gone from the caribina it had been attached to! My thoughts immediately went back to when I nearly ended up in the river. Maybe it had been the compass that had fallen out then? I removed all the contents of my map pouch and found the compass lurking at the very bottom. I checked and found that, even if this was not the right path, it was the right direction. If need be I could pick up a road into the village of Castle Eaton and the CP.
At this point I had no idea of the time, no idea how far it was to the next CP and was not really sure if I was on the right path. I saw a walker coming towards me down the path so I asked the time – 09:31 (very precisely). He then asked if I was going to Castle Eaton as this was where he had just come from. He consulted his hand-help GPS and declared it to be 1.85 miles away!
I could probably just make the 1000hrs cut-off.
I started running and about half a mile further on, I saw Shane who had run out to meet me. He said I could make it if I picked up the pace a bit. We reached the village roads so I ignored the pain of the chafing and the pain in my feet and ran as fast as I could. This felt like 10 m/mi pace but was probably much slower. Shane kept telling me that it was near, just round the corner, not far now. I knew he was lying though his teeth but soon we saw two of the CP marshalls had also come out to meet me which was really encouraging. If anything, I ran even faster through the village and up to the CP with just a minute or two to spare!
At the CP I borrowed Shane’s phone to call my wife. Apparently the whole family had been shouting at the tracker screen, willing me in, and there were loads of comments on Facebook! And I had my own hashtag - #oneminuteman!
I quickly (ish) got on with the business of making some soup, then packed up for the last 16 mile section to the finish.
Castle Eaton to the Source
Since I had found my legs running into the CP I started back with a run/walk. I was trying to average 3 mph, including stops etc. As my watch had died I had no reliable way to measure my pace but estimated I was running at about 14 m/mi pace (when running).
I found the nav reasonably straightforward right up to Ashton Keynes where I swore my way through the village, cursing the people who had marked the Thames Path. Surely the idea of signs is to guide people who DON’T know where the path is. Not 20 yards past a turn off!
Before too long I found myself at the Cotswolds Water Park. It was here that my family had been staying last year and that I met some of the runners (Ernie, Kevin Mayo) after my retirement. So I knew it was only about 5 miles to the finish.
These last 5 miles took forever and finding the source is a challenge in itself. The river Thames is one of the most historically important rivers in the world. You would think that would be worth a few signs pointing to its source?
I saw Zoe walking towards me (she had pulled out unfortunately) who told me that the finish was only a couple of hundred yards away. I ran round a wall, shouted at some cows to get out of the way of the gate I needed to go through, then ran down to the stone waving my race number like an idiot. Finished finally in 78 hours and 58 minutes. I call that getting my money’s worth!
So despite many times being close to calling it a day, I made it to the finish. Many thanks to Shane and all the crew who made it possible. Special thanks to the crew at Castle Eaton who made a special effort to encourage me to keep going.
UPDATE: The film of the race can be found here.
Last Year’s Race
I attempted this challenge in 2014 but pulled out at Streatley (100miles) due to a combination of factors;
· Foot pain – I had been suffering with heel pain for some time and started the race with this.
· Weariness – general tiredness due to lack of sleep and the weight of the pack. Another night was looming with (almost certainly) another night as well.
· Behind Schedule – I had planned on 60-65 hours to finish. When it became obvious that I could not hope to finish in this time, despondency set in. I had family plans on the Monday (my family were staying in the Cotswolds) and the thought of disrupting these plans started to weigh on my mind.
· Lack of food and unwillingness to eat - I found I could not face the freeze dried foods and most were thrown away part-eaten.
After some reflection (and recovery) I was disappointed with this DNF as any one of the factors above were not insurmountable – they just all conspired to erode my mental state and make a retirement too attractive and easy.
Planning for the 2015 race therefore started straight away and I re-entered within a week.
The main changes I decided to make were;
More Sleep – Although it would be impossible to eliminate tiredness completely, my thoughts were that a couple of hours on the first night, 3-4 hours on the second and another hour or so on the third night would stave off the worst of the exhaustion.
Change in food – In 2014 I had been using freeze dried foods which, whilst convenient, were pretty much unpalatable to me. I researched fast-packing and found some interesting information on taking and cooking real food. I bought a pan for the JetBoil and experimented with cooking various meals, first in the kitchen at home and then on overnight runs. I found I could make tasty meals with very few ingredients which resulted in the following meals;
· Spaghetti Pomodoro
· Spaghetti Carbonara (after a fashion)
· Curried fried rice
· Scrambled Eggs
· Flatbreads (as an accompaniment to the above)
· Soup Sachets (Heinz soup sachets for speed and convenience in the latter stages)
· Various Snacks
I found that the combined weight of the ingredients and the pan were not much more than the freeze dried meals I had taken the previous year and it would mean food that I would actually eat rather than not being able to face eating.
More pack training – Although I had trained with my pack in the lead-up to 2014, I felt this had not been enough so most of my weekend runs in the 3 months leading up to the race were with full pack, including night runs with a sleep to practice setting up for a sleep and cooking.
Things that happened this year but not previously.
Blisters started early on – Same shoes, same socks, same foot prep so no idea why.
Chafing – Again, same clothes and preps and I have never had a problem with chafing other than very minor soreness due to seams. Even 5 days afterwards this is still painful.
Electronic devices - Nothing seemed to keep its charge for as long as I would have expected this year. I can only put this down to the low temperature.
Main Kit List
OMM 32l Classic pack
OMM Front mounted map pouch
Marmot Bivi Tent
JetBoil Stove with frying pan
OMM Raidlight sleeping bag