Race Date: Saturday 10th September 2022
Travelling down to the Big Smoke on the day after Queen Elizabeth’s passing held some mixed feelings and felt somewhat strange, however the event organisers, Action Challenge, had confirmed the event was to go ahead. Around 4000 people were due to take part in a variety of running and walking events over the weekend organised by Action Challenge with over £1 million to be raised for numerous charities, many of which The Queen was a patron.
I passed through the bustle of St Pancras Station on Friday afternoon with my weekend adventure about to make a positive start when a complete stranger spoke to me on the London Underground (which is not something I am told happens in “that London” very often), my encounter being nothing untoward but just a nice chat between Edgeware Road and Putney Bridge, I was enjoying the talk so much that I almost missed getting off at the correct stop on The Tube.
In preparation, I had booked overnight accommodation a year ago which was a 2-minute walk to the start line at Bishops Park, Putney. Being the 24/7 microcosm that London is (i.e., traffic jams at midnight and the associated chatter and noise) this contributed to a disturbed night’s sleep prior to race day. The morning alarm was set for 4.45pm to get some suitable nutrition down me before the 7am event start along with the other associated preparation for this ultra event.
Before leaving the confines of The Premier Inn room, I specifically set aside 5 minutes of quiet almost meditation style reflection to remind me why I was here, all the preparation and training, times laid awake early morning thinking through my event plan, the fundraising, that my family had supported me towards today, those thoughts needed to be kept in my mind as I now intended on not leaving anything out there on the course route, at the end I would come away with little or no regrets and be satisfied I’d given it my best shot, I was going to finish at the very least, no question. I had devised a best-case scenario event plan and intended to stick to it, no messing around at rest stops, concentrate on my pace and just be generally prepared all round.
From previous events I had undertaken over the same distance, I knew it was important in the main to go with what you know about yourself and your body and just be sensible around kit, nutrition, pace etc. There is too much marketing tripe pushed the runner’s way and it can be easy to get swept up in it. The human body is a piece of well-engineered work over millions of years and it’s not just going to fail because you didn’t drink Lucozade Sport or take an energy gel every 20 minutes, that pair of trainers might look nice but they’re actually expensive crap. Do what you know is best, the tried and tested, this being the moral of the story.
The first wave started at 7am and we were off onto Putney Bridge and over the river and onto The Thames Path, I had a plan around pacing myself, starting with getting to the first rest stop at 17km in 84 minutes or under. I had run this pace in training numerous times, and it was more than doable without feeling overly tired. Top up the drink, energy bar stuffed in pockets, off again in about 4-5 minutes. Now to maintain a pace of around 6 minutes per kilometre. The next rest stop at 29km was pretty much the same drill as before. Onwards again and I maintained the pace through to the 37km rest stop, same drill and onto the 50km halfway point at Runnymede which I reached a few minutes ahead of my anticipated and planned time of midday.
At the 50km rest stop my parents were waiting, having travelled down early morning from Sheffield. I had prepared further for this point by handing them a prepacked bag of kit earlier in the week and a hoard of other bits for any eventuality. I had only made an allowance for a 15-minute rest stop at 50km and I began to realise this was not enough time to both get some decent food inside and importantly prepare myself for the second half of the course. I needed to change the socks and just take care of a couple of minor blisters that were starting to develop on the feet. One of my only moans at the event organisers was the food available at this major rest stop in comparison to previous events. Spaghetti bolognaise and chicken balti curry are not primary choices for ultra runners and when I enquired for a simple jacket spud I received a somewhat offended look from one of the catering staff, “Nah mate, haven’t got naffin like that”. The halfway point stop turned from planned 15 minutes into about 30 minutes, but it was necessary. Due to the exotic food on offer, it was a bit of plain spaghetti, an energy bar and banana for me and I was off. Afterall, it was all downhill from here having now reached halfway!
I was under no illusions that once you cross the 50km threshold the body and mind start to enter a different phase. I had started to develop a bit of a churny stomach from about 45km and unfortunately this stayed with me for the majority of the second half of the event and played a part in my performance over the second half. Furthermore, around the town of Datchet I took a wrong turning which cost me getting on 2-3 km before I corrected things and reached the 62 km rest stop, I was beginning to naturally tire at this stage and had just simply lost some concentration. Along came a positive however in that some other runners I chatted too briefly before asked if we could form a group onwards to the next rest stop at 78km. At this point the 16km distance between these two markers seemed like some effort and a phycological one at that. Briefly we worked between the 3 of us and devised a plan at first to run 4km and walk 1km in blocks, this was amended slightly as we went on to run 2.5km and walk 500 metres. The plan worked well for a short time until the 3 of us became separated but not long before the 78km rest stop was upon me. Another slight wrong turning just before the rest stop added on about 1.5km (a lot of other participants complained this time about the course signage around this stage so I didn’t feel as stupid).
My body and mind were crying out for food now and I had developed a taste for Coca Cola, it was the only thing that satisfied the thirst cravings. I had a reasonable sized snack at this stage and Mum and Dad were there again, it was great to see familiar faces. The food on offer this time was a bit more suited and the potato wedges and chicken wrap went down a treat.
I had memorised large chucks of the route in my head from 2019 when I did this event before (unfortunately not the bit in Datchet). The evening sun was starting to set and the section between 78km and the 89km rest stop was very peaceful and did help calm the mind. Despite the couple of wrong turns and the dicky tum, I knew I would finish, that was never in question but my pace had significantly slowed from what I wanted. I run-walked the majority of this section on my own however many of the locals out for their evening walk seemed aware of what sort of event and distance people were taking on as there was plenty of encouragement offered, thank you. More folks under the influence of rather expensive prosecco shouted encouragement from their riverside boats as I continued in the later stages.
In 2019, I reached the 89km rest stop in complete darkness, however this time I still had some daylight left but I had the torch at the ready as it was clear I was not going to finish by nightfall. Around 92km I switched the lights on and lit the way to the end. The section approaching the finish at Henley is open fields with no light on offer other than some green glowsticks put in place by the event organisers, so I really had to concentrate now. I managed to pair up with another runner in the final 6-7kms and again this worked well as we carried each other through towards the finish. The familiar lights of Henley on Thames appeared in the distance along with the 98 and 99km markers and you start to feel that sense of achievement in what you are about to complete. The 100km distance is the equivalent of running from Central Sheffield in a straight line to the outskirts of Hornsea on the east coast, or if you prefer going the other way then you would reach The Wirral.
I crossed the 100km line in a finish time of 14 hours, 4 minutes, 48 seconds, 57th place finish.
The winner, Hugo Fry, finished in 8 hours 59 minutes, 56 seconds. First female was Alex Marshall in 10.12.40.
When completing a distance and event like this, you naturally reflect thereafter having prepared so much beforehand. What would I have done differently? Could I have done this better or quicker? On honest reflection and based on what I have written here, yes, I think a finish time of an hour quicker was certainly achievable on the day. My time was still a 100km personal best taking 1 hour 13 minutes off my 2019 time so I was not disappointed but there was a thought of “what could have been?”.
My vision and best-case scenario goal was to finish somewhere around the 11-hour mark. I wanted to know if I could get anywhere near to the current male V45 record of 10 hours 37 minutes or that of the male V50 record of 11 hours 37 minutes (I enter this age group next year), so respect where respect is due Preston Grundy, those records may hang around for some time yet. Meanwhile from me, the thought remains “never say never”, or else what’s the point, eh?
My Bib number was 1172, the full results are here – https://thamespathchallenge.livetrail.run/
I have raised around £460 for Pancreatic Cancer UK in sponsorship.