I did it, I actually did it!
I completed the Thames Path Challenge 100km Ultra Marathon! 💯 🏃💨 🏅 🙌
A few days of recovering on the sofa and it’s slowly beginning to sink in as to exactly what it is I achieved! Such a huge feat.
I spent the week leading up to it, lightly jogging out my taper and furiously refreshing the weather forecast. But alas, rain was imminent.
How wet would I get? Very.
The morning started well enough, well, as well as any morning with a 4:30am alarm can.
I’d packed everything the night before so it was just a case of having breakfast, putting my race kit on and heading off to the start. I arrived in plenty of time to register, get myself sorted out and managed to have another cup of tea and a banana calming the butterflies in my stomach in the countdown to 7am.
I resisted the urge to go too fast having learnt that peril in training no matter how good you are feeling at the start. A few people flew off at a rapid pace but I seemed happily in the middle of the pack even though it took me a few kilometres to settle into my pace as we all found our way over Putney Bridge and down to the river path.
I was just focusing on one section at a time, the next checkpoint was always my target. My first goal was 28km to Hurst Park with the plan being to run at my intended pace the whole way there (no walking breaks just yet).
I had friends and family waiting for me there to cheer me through the first section and waiting with supplies – Coconut water, PB&J sandwiches, fruit and such. I did not realise how well stocked the checkpoints and aid stations would be from the event organisers Action Challenge, and even though I had pre-packed bags of supplies being shuttled by family to each checkpoint I probably could have got away without them. Still, it was reassuring to know exactly what I would have waiting for me in case I didn’t fancy what was on offer.
A drinks bottle refill and off I went again search of the 50km halfway point at Runnymede. Contrary to popular belief Ultra Marathons are not 100% running, they are also a mix of walking and hiking (depending on the terrain), and this is where I now started to alternate my running with walking. My aim was 25-30mins running and then 5-10mins walking which I generally managed through to the halfway point, though in the second half of the race the running sections got shorter and shorter as I got increasingly tired!
You’d be forgiven for thinking that the route is relatively flat, I had thought it was (and even been told as such) but what they don’t tell you is that, well, it isn’t.
Over 280m of elevation across the whole route, from gradual leg-sapping inclines that you don’t notice until you realise how much harder your legs are working to steps and ramps up and over bridges. I’m sure each climb onto a bridge was cursed by every runner that went up it.
I think I got stung by stinging nettles a couple of times along the more overgrown pathways of this section and it was a weirdly welcome distraction from the aches creeping into my legs. I was tempted to deliberately do it again later in the hope of further distraction but, probably for the best, I didn’t.
I’d not really struggled with any blisters in my training (looking after my feet and plenty of vaseline!) but the wet weather had decided otherwise for today. Socks and shoes wet through meant my feet were rubbing badly. I dried my feet, covered the necessary areas with Compeed Plasters and put on some dry socks which felt amazing! Do not underestimate the power that fresh socks can give you!
My sister had very kindly offered to join me on the third section from 50-78km of which I was extremely grateful for the company and the support. All the runners had really thinned out to the halfway point and actually along this third section to Cookham we only saw seven other runners! It would have been a very lonely stretch without her.
Although this was a great section for some company, it was not a good section for the weather. Already very wet from the persistently intermittent rain all morning it really came down during this section. It felt like every type of inclement weather from fine drizzle to heavier rainfall that whipped you in the face from the wind in every direction. Not fun!
64km was a mini landmark for me as I surpassed my longest ever run, I was into the unknown now! Then came the mental realisation of hitting 66km. Two thirds of the way through was a mini triumph yes, but all I could think was that half of what I had done I still had to do all over again. Demoralising doesn’t even come close to how I felt.
I got quite tearful around the 70km mark. My ankle was in a lot of pain and after a short walk break I went to start running again and just couldn’t. My current state of fatigue and the pain and fear of not finishing was overwhelming and I just stopped and welled up. This was one of those points where had I been on my own I’m not sure how I would have coped, instead my sister helped me work through it and gradually start moving off again. I don’t remember exactly what she said but it worked!
My Garmin gives me an alert every 5km and I used this as a little boost, counting it out loud every time it went off. It went off at the 75km mark and I should have proudly said “fifteen”, but for some reason I just stopped. The five times table had alluded me. Sheer exhaustion was taking over and I’d lost the ability for even relatively basic mental arithmetic.
Despite the continuing rain and mud underfoot we progressed and made it to the 78km checkpoint.
By this point I was really struggling to take on much food. I was trying, but I’d almost thrown up three times so far and my body was just saying no. I reasoned that hungry and tired was better than vomiting and I was at least keeping fluids down (a mix of High5 energy, Coca Cola and High5 Zeros) but even my proven snacks and food from all my training runs were becoming very difficult. I ate what I could (a mini pork pie and ready salted Hula Hoops since you asked), made a quick toilet stop and was off again.
All the other runners were really great and encouraging every time they passed me, or I them. Kind and reassuring words made you feel like you weren’t the only one suffering as we feigned pained smiles at each other and plodded on. It would have been great for some company to run with others during some sections but the reality was that we were all running at very different paces. We all seemed to be taking walking breaks but the runs/walks were differing speeds and durations making it impossible to sync with others. Often you just have to run your own race even if it is the lonely option.
Onto the final section and I had new targets: first the drinks station 10km away and then the finish line a further 12km on.
Every step was agony at the moment. Physical pain coupled with both physical and mental exhaustion had me close to breaking point. I couple of times I genuinely thought about stopping, just giving up and calling it a day but my stubborn determination won through and I persisted.
I didn’t want to let anyone down, including myself. In relative terms I didn’t have *that* much further to go and it seemed a more painful option to give up. I wasn’t going to give up because this was getting hard. It was always going to be hard (that’s why not many people run 100km!) and it been hard for a while already.
No, I would need it to become impossible for me not to finish (whatever I convinced myself that that meant). The next step reminded me of my swollen ankle once again and I thought even it was broken I’d try and crawl to that damn finish line!
I managed to continue on and rise up from my low point, my average pace somehow not actually slowing that much, until I hit the mud. The consistent rain had turned the ground underfoot into slippery mud and it was all I could do stay upright on much of the next few kilometres. Power walking and shuffling it was, no chance of me running across this.
The ground turned back to it’s typical stoney, gravelly self and I managed to get back running. I must have been getting even more tired than I realised because I soon stopped and realised I hadn’t seen a route marker in a while.
The pink arrows, now accompanied by glow sticks as it was getting dark, had been so frequent and now there were none. Had I gone wrong? Surely not. I thought I saw a glow stick hanging on a branch further down so continued on to check, but turns out it wasn’t. It wasn’t even a light, I don’t know what my tired eyes thought they had seen!
Cold, wet and lonely, I felt very worried and so got the map out and what was left of my phone battery to locate myself. Yes I had indeed veered off course. Not by a huge amount fortunately (around 550m total), but enough to feel very alone and be really angry with myself cursing every painful step back towards the course.
Then I saw some other runners! People! I was so happy to see other people! I saw the split in the path that I had missed and rejoined the route to press on.
A brief stop at the 88km drinks station saw me catch up with a group of three who I’d been close to the whole time. I considered joining them for some company and support but their pace was just too much for me and we soon said our encouraging farewells.
As I passed over the 90km point I picked up a second wind. Ok, probably my eighth or ninth wind, but it was a boost nonetheless! I was now able to countdown single figures to the 100km finish line. I donned my headtorch and headed into Henley as the sun set over the river.
I’d have taken a photo had it not seemed like a waste of precious energy at this point, but it definitely looked something like this one from Baby Routes.
I was back managing longer run sections now that the rain had stopped, though what I discovered was just how many insects reside alongside a river when your head is a light source. I was running with a constant face of midges and flies! Not fun when you really want to be focusing on your breathing and avoiding a spluttering cough.
Coming up over a bridge and briefly into Henley I turned back along the river for one final time. I could see the finish line! The flags, the lights, the inflatable banners, I was so close!
I squeezed everything I could on that final push and as I turned up onto the grass fist-pumped my way through the finish line with my family, friends and supporters cheering me on! Utter indescribable elation at finishing!
I was given a medal, event tshirt and champagne, and was just overcome with emotion. It is such a blur when I try and think back to it, I didn’t know whether to sit down or walk around, laugh, cry, eat, or just crumple into a pile of the broken person I felt like!
My moving time was 11hrs 52mins (average pace 7:14/km) and a further 1hr 50mins spent at checkpoints, aid stations and toilet stops for a total time of 13hrs and 41mins from start to finish. Perhaps somewhat hampered by the relentlessly wet weather but I don’t think I could have done anymore regardless of the conditions and at least it wasn’t sweltering heat!
The next morning I woke up to discover I’d actually finished 44th out of all the runners! Completely gobsmacked!
I was told that there were around 250-300 runners and a further 2,000+ walkers doing the route. Weirdly no one I spoke to seemed to know exactly how many there were!
The full activity is on my Strava profile here.
I have to give a huge thumbs up to the organisers who were excellent throughout. Of all the events I’ve done this has to be have been one of the best organised, supported, supplied, friendliest and well-stocked I’ve ever seen. Bravo, Action Challenge and Ultra Challenges.
I must say a huge thanks to friends and family that have all supported me over the past six months or so as well as on the day itself. I’m taking a short break from running for now, and from Ultras forever (probably).
Following the Ultra I’ve spent my time eating, napping and watching Netflix on the sofa, and working my way through just over 8,000 calories in two days alone. Though still at a 1,000 calories deficit of the Ultra estimate’s 9,000+ calories burned.
Be under no illusion the Thames Path Challenge is tough, very tough, but I’m so happy to have done it! I’m part of the Ultra 100 Club!
It’s not too late to still make a donation to my Just Giving page in raising money for Millie’s Trust if you are able to. As ever, anything you can spare is very gratefully received and will make my pain that little bit more bearable.