At 9:50am on Saturday 5th May I stood on the Thames Path next to Richmond Old Town Hall in the already strong morning sun and listened to the pre-race briefing, writes John Witton. I was about to run over 100 miles along the river, following the Thames Path National Trail North, all the way to Oxford. This race is one of four 100+ mile ultramarathons organised by Centurion Running. I did the North Downs Way 100 in August last year, and though I finished inside the cut-off of 30 hours (28:19:16), it was truly brutal and, after my legs seized up at 75 miles, I was forced to walk the last 25 miles which took me 11 hours! I finished 103rd in that race out of 147 finishers and was dropping back through the field dramatically from the half-way point. I was under-prepared and knew I could do better. My next attempt at 100 miles was the Cotswold Way Century at the end of September 2017. After a difficult journey to Chipping Campden with my son throwing up on the way, I suffered stomach issues myself in the race and had to pull out at 72 miles after being sick. Ironically, I'd done 90% of the climbing and run through the night, so the hard work was all done, so it was rather frustrating and meant I didn't quite have enough points for UTMB.
The Thames Path is pretty flat, certainly next to the North Downs with only 560m of climb, compared to 3050m on the North Downs Way (that's what did my legs in!), though it's technically uphill all the way. I was confident that I could complete the race in under 24 hours and get the coveted '100 miles - one day' finisher buckle. I was running the race with my friend Tim and we set off together at an easy jog in the sunshine, passing Hampton Court Palace on the way to the first aid station at Walton-on Thames. Unfortunately, Tim tripped on a root around mile 3 and fell on his knee which later gave him difficulties. He came into the second aid station at Wraysbury after me and told me to go on ahead as he was struggling in the heat.
The first marathon passed fairly uneventfully and I arrived into the third aid station at Dorney just over 30 miles in, feeling OK, if uncomfortably hot. The mercury had reached 25 degrees in some places along the route and it was turning into a repeat of the London Marathon 2 weeks ago, weather-wise! The volunteers at the aid stations were great, and at one I soaked my buff with water from a hose and had an ice lolly! I tried not to spend too long at the aid stations, just long enough to grab some food and refill my bottles, around 3-5 minutes. The spread is always pretty good in these races and I helped myself to peanut butter wraps, flapjack, bite-size sandwiches, tomatoes and lots of fruit: watermelon (my ultra race fave!), grapes, oranges and bananas.
At Henley aid station, just over half way, I took a little longer and had a brief sit down to eat some pasta and have a cup of tea (2 sugars, obviously!). I got a message from Tim here to say that he'd had to pull out at mile 46 as his knee was giving him trouble. He was gutted and I felt for him, after having a couple of DNFs at ultras before myself. It's all a learning experience though and he's already entered the 'Autumn 100' for October! I had a 'drop bag' at Henley with spare clothing in it and changed my sweat-drenched T-shirt and enjoyed a Muller rice and Weetabix in a bottle! I found out as I left Henley that I was in 27th place (314 started the race), which buoyed my spirits considerably and I started to think that I was doing OK.
The thing with ultra-races is that they are always a rollercoaster of emotions. One minute your brain is saying 'What am I doing, I'm not an ultra-runner, this is ridiculous, why would ANYONE do this?' and the next it's saying 'YES, I can DO this, I'm an ULTRARUNNER!'. You flip flop between these two states throughout the 100 or so miles, but learning I was reasonably near the front of the field help keep me more in the latter.
It was still hot by the time I finished the second marathon just after Henley and I was looking forward to the sun going down! One thing that made the race even harder, as well as the heat, was seeing people all along the river in beer gardens, having BBQs, picnics and garden parties and messing about in boats, while I slogged along. It really made me question my life choices – 'I could be that guy with a cold pint of cider, what am I DOING?' (but perhaps he was thinking 'I could be that guy, running 100 miles up the Thames'!!).
At Streatly (71 miles) I had another drop bag so it was time for another Muller rice and Weetabix bottle. The volunteers also did me a cup of beans with some cheese. I sat down here too and messaged friends and family to let them know how I was doing but I knew I couldn't linger too long as I'd start to seize up. It was getting dark now and so I changed into a base layer and long sleeved top and kept my gloves and head torch handy. It wasn't long before both the gloves and torch were on and I was plodding though the night. Some sections whizzed by, others seemed to take forever. One section of wet grass thoroughly soaked my feet and thick mist made it very hard to see with my torch, so that slowed me down a lot. Eventually I found myself approaching Clifton Hampden at 85 miles. This aid station was a bit annoying as you had to turn right and go up a hill to the aid station then come back down the hill when you left, adding a few hundred metres to the route.
After a cup of tea, I was out again, having been told by one of the volunteers that I was in 21st place – a top 20 finish was possible! My brain was a bit addled by this point and I was getting confused, and nearly went back the way I'd come once I came down the hill from the aid station, until I was stopped by a marshal. I didn't want to be running 85 miles back to Richmond!
The last section was surprisingly pleasant and I was able to tap into the last of my energy reserves in the dawn light and power through to the finish. I found myself overtaking a few people along the last stretch of river into Oxford and then, suddenly, I could see the inflatable blue arch of the finish! I picked up the pace and loped in, feeling really comfortable and ecstatic to have made it. I finished 17th out of 314 starters (182 finished, 132 dropped out – largely due to the heat) in a time of 20:29:04. I got my '100 miles - one day' finisher buckle and sat down in a chair in the sun for a bowl of chilli and a can of cider from my finish drop bag. Great feeling. I had to wait for my other drop bags to arrive and after a shower, got a taxi to Oxford station and the train back to Sevenoaks via Marylebone.
All in all, a great day out! My next ultra will be the TDS race (part of UTMB) around Mont Blanc which will be considerably more lumpy!