Well this race wasn’t really on my radar, given I’m a relative newbie to Ultras and although I’d managed to come through unscathed in the GUCR in May, I hadn’t even contemplated attempting the longest single stage race in the UK. Who in their right mind would as a Newbie. Well, I’ve since been informed we’re all nutters anyway so that’s neither here nor there!
However, there already seemed to be an expectation by friends and fellow runners, including Paul Woodyatt, Stephen Woodus (Woody) and Paul Ali that I should be there… ”See you at the TR250 then Ian” I hear, post the GUCR – so what could I do eh?
Combined with some more less subtle coercion from Woody via FB, a theory about the benefits of miles already being in the legs and the fact that the event only runs bi-annually, all conspired to convince me that I could and must do this now!
Woody and Ali Nuttall kindly agreed to let me stop over the night before the race to break my journey from Norwich, which just left about a one hour trip to Goring on the morning of the race. It also addressed the issue of driving post race as Ali and Woody suggested I leave my car at theirs and recover before heading home. I can’t thank them enough for that.
Kit Choice was as for GUCR largely, Brooks Cascadia, Injinji socks under premium Hilly socks, loads of tshirts, Cap, UA, Petzl NAO headtorch and buff for the night section, UltraAspire Revolution race vest, a garmin to adorn my wrist (that’s all it did) and a PowerMonkey Extreme as portable power source.
Food was an assortment of Cheese snips, Blueberries, Instant porridge, chocolate, Malt loaf and Jelly babies prepared into convenient bags to collect from CP’s, all prepared earlier with the help of Gill. Pepparami mini sticks and other bits n bobs completed my emergency rations. I knew there’d be plenty of other stuff at the CP’s.
Drink included sports drinks to down at each CP, Sis powder to mix up drinks between CP’s as necessary (when I hit BW water points) water and hot tea if I remembered for the night sections. I didn’t bother with gels at all for this race or for the GUCR and suffered zero stomach issues.
Anyway, back to the race, a quick hello to Dick and Anthony on arrival, then I collected my number and initial route map for first section and settled down with a cuppa and chat to Rajeev Patel and Lindley Chambers. I spotted quite a few other familiar faces from GUCR, Jim Donnelly, Paul Ali, Javed Batthi, Tom Chalk and Keith Godden but didn’t get to chat with everyone pre-race.
After a short briefing by Dick Kearn we then swiftly headed outside for the start line. A few pics later, some hand shaking, a quick call to OH Gill. Yes, I remembered this time 🙂 …and we were off!
Start – Streetley to Hurley (27.25)
The early stages inevitably involved a fair bit of banter between runners as we constantly exchanged places and spilled the beans on our respective strategies – or at least partially spilled 🙂 It soon became clear there were a number of pairings as expected, Paul Ali/Mike Sartorious, Chris Ette/Mike Chew and I think a number of others.
I hooked up with a few different runners during this section, including Woody, Jim Donnelly and Tom Chalk. On the approach to Reading I joined Paul Ali, Mike Sartorious and Javed Bhatti for a while before moving off. A group were waiting alongside the river who applauded us as we passed but I understand that they were waiting for Paul Ali, as they were his workmates. Nice of them to come out and cheer him on!
I was feeling strangely uncomfortable in these early stages which although a little worrying, didn’t concern me too much as I knew bad patches can just as easily occur early as well as late in races. In GUCR I didn’t really start suffering until about 80-100 miles in. Here I was into the first section and experiencing pain throughout my body. Perhaps it was psychological. I theorised that this turnaround was transitory and I’d become much stronger as the race progressed. Thankfully, so it proved.
We had to negotiate the crowds at the Henley Regatta which didn’t go down to well with me. We were stopped by security and asked to go around, but I felt like protesting, as we were participating in a licensed race after all on a public right of way.
The general consensus of other runners seemed to be to cede to their wishes though, so we detoured around. It didn’t make much difference really as we simply couldn’t run through the dense crowds safely anyway.
I reached CP 1 in 4hr 44mins and only stopped for 18 minutes to refuel before heading out again. CP crews were on the ball and tended to us brilliantly. Quick hello to Ali Nuttal who was supporting Woody, as well as marshalling of course, along with Peter Foxall, Lucy Gettins and others. Sorry I don’t know all the other crew members but they did a great job looking after us.
I noticed Woody with feet elevated and milking the special attention from Ali 🙂 I was in fact relieved to see he’d arrived OK, as I’d had a horrible feeling that he’d gone wrong somewhere, because I’d not seen him for ages. I needn’t have worried, he’d just put in a burst.
There were certainly some early fast pace setting in that first section by the leaders and it was generally believed that the pace was simply too fast to sustain.
Hurley (CP 1) to Chertsey (CP 2) – 27.8, Total 55.05
As I headed out from the CP I ran for while with Mike Sartorious and Paul Ali before I moved off ahead and found myself running alongside Chris Ette and Mike Chew.
When we arrived in Windsor we took the opportunity to top up our hydration. It also became clear where Javed, who we’d seen earlier had mysteriously disappeared to, as comically he popped is head out of the local fish n chip shop across the road to say hello. Obviously an established part of his strategy, as he’d already completed the TR250 twice before.
We quickly topped up our bottles etc and hit the trail again, but it soon became clear that Mike Chew was suffering with an injury and questioning his decision whether he should have started at all. I later learned that Mike had unfortunately had to withdraw. A sensible decision, given that we still had another 200 miles to go and he would have only exacerbated the injury. Common sense prevailed. Not sure I’d have been so sensible.
Conversations with fellow runners proved a real fillip and really helped the miles go by, although I felt sure we’d exhaust topics to discuss as we progressed much further into the race. Enduring adversity together though meant that although some of us had started out as strangers, we were all rapidly becoming friends. This was to prove key. I think it was roughly around Windsor that I ran and chatted briefly with Sean Maley, who went on to secure a great result!
Chertsey (CP2) to Yiewsley(CP3) – 27.2 miles, 82.3 miles total
I arrived at Chertsey (CP2) at 20:21 and spent over 30 minutes here, which was longer than intended. I was still a little out of sorts due to the early pain I was suffering, but I was sure this would abate as I cracked on. I kept Gill informed of my progress and assured her I believed the bad patch would pass.
The CP crew were great as usual, very upbeat, bubbly and very motivational. I decided to don the night gear here, remembering to collect the all-important head torch. Just over an hour after the leaving the CP night fell and it was soon time to don the head torch. Now I was exchanging places with a number of runners including Javed, Woody and Chris Ette. I believe Rikard joined us around this time, but was desparate for some sleep, so he took advantage of a well placed bench.
This section was pretty confusing as we detoured away from the river and were forced to double back when we realised we’d dropped a clanger somewhere. It certainly confused a few runners.
It wasn’t too long before we’d passed through Syon Park and found our way through to the Grand Union Canal, but we were joined by a group of revellers who we thought could prove troublesome, so the consensus was to crack on sharpish and lose them before any potential trouble ensued. We figured if they’d had a skin full we could put some distance between us and them in case things got nasty. In agreement with Javed, we cracked on.
I had some enjoyable chats with Chris Ette and Javed Bhatti along this stretch before I pushed on with more urgency, as I really intended to get to CP 3 before light in order to capitalise on the darkness for a power nap. I pushed on at a decent pace and arrived at 04:10, but was too alert to take a nap.
Unusually for me I’d developed a blister which I decided to treat with the help of the CP crew, who supplied me with a syringe. Nici Griffin, the trusted foot photographer was hovering in the wings and took a crafty snap for her collection of course. Fame at last! 🙂
Co-incidentally Javed was also suffering with a blister, which was also unusual for him. It was strange that a number of runners not normally afflicted by blisters were on this occasion, even though it wasn’t even wet weather.
I took on some hot food and few hot drinks and donned my heavy duty coat whilst I sat there. Staying warm was critical for me, as I knew the cold could prove my achilles heel and totally undo my race.
The food was very welcome and it was amazing just how palatable those little sausages proved to be throughout the event, when you’re tired, cold and hungry. I took some on at every opportunity thereafter.
I noted Woody, Paul Ali, Mike Sartorious and one or two others were taking their naps, which I of course had intended to do myself, but it was futile trying.
Ali Nuttall later roused Woody from his slumber after an hour and Woody and I headed out together at 05:45. That was a stop of approx. 90 minutes for me, but with no sleep benefit. Never mind, I just couldn’t take advantage of it, but I hoped that it wouldn’t come back to bite me.
I think I was lying about 12th on arrival at this CP but by the time I’d hit the next CP had improved to 9th equal with Woody.
Yiewsley (CP3) to Berkhamsted (CP 4) (23.6) Total 105.85
I arrived at CP 4 with Woody about 50 minutes after Chris Ette, who presumably had a very brief stop at CP3 as he’d made great time. We were soon followed by Paul Ali who came in about 30 minutes later.
I was feeling much stronger than I was earlier in the race, but understandably tired. The CP guys were great as usual and included James Elson, Lindley Chambers (who I learned had unfortunately withdrew with a back injury), Nici Griffin, Ali Nuttall, Sue Albiston and others. Sorry I can’t recall all of your names.
I had some welcome beans and a bacon butty and couple of cuppa’s, but forgot to take advantage of the offer of a massage. I’d never had welcome beans before 🙂
It was nice to have a chat with James Elson who I’d not spoken to face to face before but was obviously aware of as he was head of Centurion and this year’s GUCR winner. It was also encouraging to receive some positive comments as a relative newbie from Lindley and James, so thanks for that!
I decided to shed the night gear at this point and knew we were due a hotter day today. All fueled up and ready to rock I headed out Milton Keynes bound.
Berkhamsted (CP4) to Milton Keynes (CP5) 24.35 Total 130.2
I don’t remember too much about this leg, but arrived at CP 5 in joint 7th place with Woody and greeted by a bubbly crew again which included Ali Nuttall (who was also crew for Woody of course) Sarah Thorne (1st lady at the GUCR 2013), Glyn Rayman and other great crew members, who again I can’t remember the names of, I’m sorry.
Quick call to update Gill how things were going and Gill relayed the message via FB to everyone following. She was handling this brilliantly as she did for GUCR. I chose not to read or respond personally to updates, because it would have been impractical and time consuming, even though I’m sure it may have helped with motivation. Sorry to anyone who was expecting me to respond personally.
Ali Nuttall took requests for ice creams and dashed off to oblige. Sarah Thorne topped up my bottles, mixed me my energy drink and dished out some more positive vibes to send us on our way. The crew were all stars and couldn’t do enough for us. They were just brilliant!
I opted for another clothes change before leaving this CP but can’t remember from what into what, unless I imagined it. Overall, this was an efficient and uplifting stop, which was all done in 30 minutes.
I grabbed a bit of pizza to go, as suggested and caught up with Woody, who’d left shortly before me. Unfortunately, Woody’s choice of pizza didn’t agree with him and he was already feeling nauseous, which wasn’t a good sign.
Milton Keynes (CP 5) – Nether Heyford (CP 6) 26.95 Total 157.15
I really didn’t enjoy this section at all as I felt thoroughly tired and a tad nauseous myself too, I was acutely aware of the danger of letting my own negative feelings spill over onto another runner (in this case Woody) and he likewise felt the same as we had discussed this pre-race.
We both felt pretty dire during this stage so talk was kept to a minimum and at best difficult at times. We both knew we had a job to do though and at no time did I sense any suggestion of retirements from either of us.
We soldiered on and I was looking forward to my first real sleep. I needed it desparately now, so we pushed on to Nether Heyford. It seemed to take ages to get through this section.
We stumbled across another friendly face on the approach to Blisworth Tunnel, as we’d finally caught up with Chris Ette again, but only because he’d hit a hiccup trying to find the way through to Blisworth. Chris had made great progress until that point so was pretty annoyed with himself.
However, it’s pretty easy to miss the entrance for Blisworth and when traversing the course in reverse and in the dark it can all look so different. As Woody and I had not long completed the GUCR this was fresh in our memory, so all three of us decided to hook up together.
Counting down the bridges seemed to take an eternity and I stated several times to Chris and Woody that they should crack on without me, as I was seriously contemplating kipping under a bridge. I was now virtually asleep on my feet, constantly smashing into hedges and stumbling all over the place. It must have been very comical for Chris and Woody following behind me 🙂
I knew it would be foolish to sleep now though, as it was pretty cold in the dead of night, so I didn’t need much dissuading. I knew we couldn’t be too far from the CP now anyway, but it really couldn’t come soon enough for me.
Suddenly out of the darkness emerged the friendly face of Ali Nuttall and other CP crew who were kindly waiting at the Canal Bridge to direct us to CP 6 (Nether Heyford) which was located in a village hall (but not at all straightforward to find) At last somewhere to sleep and indoors. Yes!!!
Chris Ette, Woody and I were joint 5th at this stage, although positions seemed to be less relevant somehow as the race progressed. Talk was of finishing first and foremost!
I grabbed about 90 minutes broken sleep here, refueled food and hydration and changed out of my night gear. Overall this was a longer stop than I had envisaged but needs must. In fact, we’d all opted for 90 mins sleep and we certainly needed it.
Nether Heyford (CP 6) – Fenny Compton (CP 7) 25.99 Total 183.14
We all left together just after 6:00 a.m under the kindly stewardship of Peter Johnson, who directed us back to a small opening on the canal side where we were to resume our adventure. We encountered some delay around Brauston for some reason, but it should have been pretty straightforward. I guess the overgrowth of foliage made everything look so different or else we just weren’t focused enough due to tiredness.
I insisted another ice cream was in order and didn’t hear any protests, but we kept the pace brisk. The day was getting hotter and hotter though and this was a blisteringly hot and difficult section on uneven and rutted towpaths, especially as we got closer to the Oxford canal.
This took its toll on all of us I think as we were all sporting niggles of one form or another already. We soldiered on though, taking it in turns to lead off and keeping the momentum going.
Not much was uttered for long periods along this stretch, until the golden silence was shattered by the thunderous outburst of Woody as he burst into song at 400 decibels, sending a shock wave along the towpath that propelled both of my feet of the ground for the first time in the entire race – and worryingly stirred the inhabitants of a Narrowboat nearby. Worrying for me, as I was ahead and closest to the narrowboat.
I suspect the word used was an expletive, but I’d have to look it up. I think Woody had twisted his ankle in a rut or similar, but whatever it was, I suspect it hurt a tad. I of course didn’t indulge him in any sympathy 🙂 We all suffered in silence largely but were all guilty of a bit of whinging here and there as tiredness set in.
We pushed on regardless passing Napton Junction and onto Cropredy or thereabouts, where we found a welcome watering hole. Chris and I went to get some ice cold pints of coke and some ice for their injuries and Chris’s bladder. Chris and Woody were suffering pretty badly with niggles at this stage and the blistering heat wasn’t helping. We nevertheless had a brief stop here in the shade and then we pushed on.
I think we came across Steve Thompson along the next stretch who said we were doing great and it was now only about 3 miles to the Fenny Compton CP. I knew I’d have to consider night gear when we arrived even though it was still blazing hot, as the next section to Lower Heyford would breach the night. Timing can be critical with clothes changes and I wasn’t taking any chances
Fenny Compton (CP 7) – Lower Heyford (CP 8) 22.84, Total 205.98
Woody and Chris continued to suffer pretty badly as they left Fenny Compton a few minutes before me and when I caught up with Woody he suggested I push on without them, as my legs were in better shape. It’s actually quite difficult to leave your comrades when you’ve endured so much together, but we’d already discussed what we’d do in such circumstances, agreeing that we must run our own race. Anyway, Woody insisted I pushed on and even loaned me his watch, as mine had bombed out on me.
I got a decent pace going. So much so that I was concerned I might make the next CP before Gill had a chance to get across from Norwich, which she was hoping to do.
I stormed into Banbury (the midway point of this stretch) much faster than I expected to, due to a new found burst of energy, so I quickly called Gill, as I was concerned she might not make Lower Heyford in time. I pushed on through Banbury and onto the stretch beyond where there seemed to be endless swing bridges.
When I arrived at the bridge I was supposed to cross, it was up, so it was just case of moving on and crossing over the main road bridge. further on. I met a friendly fishermen here who was heading home and he asked me what the race was all about. He was gobsmacked when I told him and wished me all the best.
A few miles on I had an encounter with some bulls and killer cows 🙂 I didn’t fancy my chances against the bulls at least. I was completely surrounded and they weren’t going anywhere in a hurry. I shooed them away but they stared at me defiantly and closed ranks. I could have sworn they were nodding their heads in unison, and uttering “no way mate, the last runner tried that one. Thou shalt not pass!”
Eventually they listened to reason and once through I was into a decent pace again, shifting along pretty nicely thank you, until that is I found myself momentarily airborne and then crashing back down to earth with a thwack. It was pretty spectacular actually 🙂
I lay there stunned and convinced that I must have broken something. I slowly rose to my feet, reactivating all bodily parts in a kind break dance fashion and was surprised to find I was still in one piece. I afforded myself a little smile and cracked on only to find myself five or so minutes later imbedded in a thorn bush, complete with lacerated hand lol. It gets better!
Multiple tumbles later (yes it happened again) and complete with bleeding hand, I arrived bruised and battered at Lower Heyford, only to be told that my bag wasn’t there. This did concern me as I needed dry, warm clothes for the next big section and I was getting colder by the minute.
I surmised that because I had probably run my fastest leg of the whole race the CP crew weren’t expecting me there so soon. I did wonder why there didn’t appear to be a spotter before the CP and then as I entered, I took them quite by surprise. Thankfully though my bag did turn up at the next CP.
The crew were great as usual though and Debbie sorted me out a sausage in a roll, a cup of tea, and and antiseptic wipe for my bloodied hand. I also got an update on my own and others positions. I was lying 5th.
Given I didn’t have any dry clothes to change into I opted to take some hot tea in one of my water bottles, which I hoped would help warm me through.
I was really pleased to see that Gill had arrived safely and on time from Norwich, so a warm and welcome hug was in order. I’d been worried for her. It was quite a trek across from Norwich and when she arrived she’d witnessed for herself how spooky the canal can be as she looked for the CP. Interestingly, Gill did spot a potential alternative CP location which may be of interest to the organisers – for future reference?
Strangely my Blackberry had reset and shorted the battery somehow, having been fully charged that morning. Gill and I exchanged phones and she informed the crew that I was available on her number now.
A quick thanks to everyone, another hug for Gill and I was on my way again after approx 30 minutes. It seemed too brief a meet with Gill, but I knew I’d get far too cold if I didn’t get myself moving again sharpish.
Lower Heyford (CP 8)- Abingdon (CP 9) 23.55 Total 229.53
I started out from Lower Heyford fine and made good progress again, but then somewhere around Oxford it all went horribly wrong. I took yet another tumble and then found myself lost, bewildered, tired and disoriented. Rationality had deserted me, rendering me useless at trying to get my bearings, operate a phone or make simple decisions.
What followed was comical as I tried to communicate with Gill to let her know I was OK but currently lost. Problem was, nobody was answering. Why? I had the presence of mind to contact the emergency number on my bib number and speak to Anthony to let him know that I was lost but not to worry I’d find my way back.
It was at this point that I discovered the fall I took had broken the screen on Gill’s S3 Galaxy phone. Could it get any worse I thought? Well I tried yet again to contact Gill but it seems that my Blackberry that I’d swapped with her for her S3 had somehow muted itself, as had the S3 I was now carrying. I suspected a conspiracy in my current frame of mind 🙂
Anyway, I somehow managed to establish a call with Gill and spoke also to Martin Pether who tried to decipher what the hell I was on about in order to help me find out where the heck I was. I understand it was a very comical exchange, as witnessed by Wayne Simpson 🙂 It seems that I was apparently lost trying to find Oxford, but was in fact in Oxford, somewhere 🙂
Anyway, I was tired and confused and that’s my excuse. Who needed help anyway, I can do this I thought. I thanked everyone, pulled myself together and retraced my steps.
I got back on track and located the switch over to the Thames Path and bumped into my new Icelandic friend Gunnlaugur Juliusson, so we cracked on together to Abingdon.
Low on water again but not out and Gunnlaugur insisted I have some of his, of which he didn’t have much himself. That concerned me, but Gunnlaugur insisted he was fine and was doing fine on his Guinness rations. Did I hear right? Guinness! Apparently so, he swore by it 🙂
We soon forged on in this section with spells of pretty fast running and apart from one minor blip on the outskirts of the Checkpoint, we arrived at Abingdon together at 08:37
Understandably, Gill and the CP crew were relieved to see me given my exploits during the evening and rightly insisted that I took some sleep, which I wasn’t about to argue with. I hit the sack sharpish after much pampering from Gill, Ali and the rest of the crew. Thanks everyone!
I’d hoped to head out with Gunnlaugur but understandably he cracked on, as he didn’t need any sleep at the point. Just his Guinness, which he downed whilst I was asleep.
Sam Kilpatrick was also a star here, as he checked out my blisters, gave me a clean bill of health and hastened me out of the CP – only for me to return 10-15 minutes later having forgotten my race number! I was kicking myself for having lost so much time already during the Oxford section and now this. I knew I should have taken more sleep earlier and I’d have surely been 2 or more hours up on where I was now. Never mind.
Abingdon – Goring 18.83 miles Total 248.36
A slow start to this section in the blistering heat and it was getting hotter by the minute. I cracked on though, swiftly picked up another ice cream at Benson locks and kept moving.
I bumped into a cyclist named Steve (or may have been Paul) who commented that he was expecting to see someone else before me. I viewed that as a positive and it spurred me on. He wished me well and told me I only had about 5 miles to go!
I cracked on but the miles seemed interminably long and then I had yet another encounter with 2 bulls, well more like a stand-off. I didn’t fancy my chances as they stood there defiantly between me and the gate I needed to get through. They were transfixed and I’m sure one had spotted my bright red TShirt, which was more than a little disconcerting 🙂
This delayed me a while, so I let Gill know via a quick call, but got little sympathy, although I wasn’t after any anyway, I was just advising of a potential delay or fatal goring. I’m sure it raised some laughs on the other end of the line nevertheless 🙂
I eventually plucked up the courage to push on past them, but did imagine a potential headline of ‘A Goring in Goring’
A mile or so later, miraculously out of nowhere came a couple of angels in the form of Lindley Chambers and Sue Albiston, who were out scouting for runners to provide them with cooler water. What stars!
Lindley and Sue advised me that I had just 3 miles to go and that was it. I could now smell the finish and my emotions were beginning to build. I somehow found another gear from somewhere and ran swiftly into Goring.
A momentary stop to double check where I supposed to be before I ran across the Thames Bridge to be greeted by Gill, Dick, Lindley, Sue, Pam and everyone else. I may not have looked ecstatic, but I can assure you I felt it! 🙂
I’d done it, or should I say, we’d done it! 248.36 miles – The Longest Single Stage Ultra Marathon in the UK! Amazed and chuffed to bits!
Hugs for Gill and all round before heading into Goring Village Hall for a welcome cuppa and to savour the moment with a bunch of lovely people! 🙂 Dick said a few kind words and presented me with my trophy. It was a very proud moment!
We enjoyed a lovely evening post race sitting around the table chatting, laughing and eating a takeaway with Dicks Ultra family as it’s been termed. What a splendid way to round off the day!
Thanks to Gill for her unbelievable support. Thanks to Dick, Anthony, all the support crews at the CP’s, my fellow runners, my family, friends, clubmates, work colleagues and anyone else I may have missed! Thanks also to Ali and Woody who were simply wonderful hosts. You were all fantastic!
I felt privileged to be able to run this race and I’m so grateful to have shared the experience with such a wonderful group of runners, supporters and CP crew.
Will I be back? Well I know the answer to that one, but Gill may have other ideas 🙂