So this months Strava stats suddenly look pretty good. Over the last 4 days I have run the entire length of the Thames Path with the lovely people at Ultra Running Ltd. That’s 7 marathons in 4 days, pals. That’s 184 miles (plus 5 bonus ones getting lost), 41.5 hours, 18,000 calories and I think about 405,000 steps. That’s quite a lot.
It all started last year when I signed up to the first two days of the BRC Thames Challenge knowing that I had another ultra in Salisbury on the Sunday, which prevented me from doing the whole thing (excuses in early). I thought I’d give it a go and see what all the fuss was about - at the time it was my longest multi day - and to be quite honest it broke me. By day 2, I was in my hotel room having a cry looking at the withered stumps that were once my feet. Fast forward a year, and, boosted by experience and stupidity, I was going to give the whole thing a go.
The race is organised by Ultra Running Ltd, a company that are basically a one man show run by Steve Worrall, the worlds nicest man, from the back of his big orange Land Rover. The race is over 4 days and is split into 4 individual stages that can be done together, or independently, depending on how much of an idiot you are.
Day 1 is the Cotswold ultra, 44 miles from Kemble to Bablock Hythe.
Day 2 is the Oxford ultra, 65 miles from Bablock Hythe to Hurley.
Day 3 is the Windsor ultra, 43 miles from Hurley to Kingston-upon-Thames.
Day 4 is the Richmond Ultra, 31 miles from Kingston-upon-Thames to the Thames Barrier.
Seems legit right? It’s a river, you can’t get lost, “it’ll be fun”, they said.
Day 1: The Cotswold Ultra - 44.3 miles
I decided to stay in Kemble the night before the race, and met my first match in the local taxi drivers who do NOT like to pick people up or drop them off anywhere. This is strange as I did think it’s what they existed for, but they really don’t like doing it. I got to the start at 7.30am to meet up with some of my pals from Putney Runners who were also running, and the rest of the 4 day challengers. There were 12 of us attempting all 4 days, which was a pretty good turnout. It was lovely to know that I wouldn’t be on my own, and I hadn’t seen Jean-Marc since Sierra Leone, so I was looking forward to catching up with him.
No bells and whistles here…
Apparently this is where the Thames starts….
We set off at 8 am, running across fields to the post and stone that mark the start of the Thames and then doubling back on ourselves to head out towards Bablock Hythe. The day was pretty uneventful, animal count was high - delicious cows and sheep - and I was feeling pretty good. Weather was overcast and hot. 6 Music was playing some bangers. As is the way with these things, I eventually found myself on my own as the pack stretched out. The classic game of “hold it back Bailey” had begun, and I felt like I was right at the back of the pack. I was averaging an 11 min mile pace, which even I felt was too fast but I didn’t see anyone for AAAAAAAGES and I felt sad and lonely (what’s new?) so I started talking to all the animals I met along the way, including the imaginary ones.
The company that run this event are tiny and the aid stations are few and far between - on average every 10 or so miles. They do sandwiches jelly beans, a bit of cake, coke and squash. Anything else you want, you have to bring yourself. Which is why my pack had 3 tins of Peppa Pig pasta and 700 packets of salt and vinegar squares in it. It was fucking heavy.
Aid Station 1: Enjoy your lunch while I tape my trotters, people…
Last year I won this stage of the race before I had even started, as I was the only woman (pick your races, people) but this year there was a fair bit of competition with 5-6 ladyzzzz on the start line, and I knew there was lovely Emma Putney Runner in front of me, so I was taking the whole thing relatively easy, because of the “long game” plan. I had to finish the 4 days and so I couldn’t go all batshit mental competitive and ty and win individual ones.
This is one of the best days route wise - it runs through villages and fields and along the rural parts of the Thames. I entertained myself buy taking selfies in cornfields, and listening to Adam and Joe podcasts. People along the route are lovely, always saying hello and I was having a relatively nice time. I particularly enjoyed it when the Rob, the first man as far as I was concerned, came running up behind me after about 4 hours, on the phone. He’d got lost (HOW??? HOW??!) and had spent 1.5 hours going in a massive circle. He seemed OK about it - I would not have been OK about it at all. This route is not marked. You have to follow signs. And there are lots of signs. And some of them are the wrong signs.
On and on and on…
Some nice bits….
A thing that I saw.
Professional race nutrition was tins of children’s pasta, salt and vinegar squares, caffeine bullets and squash. It worked. I came in an hour earlier than the previous year feeling brilliant, and was, to my surprise, handed the first lady trophy - Emma had taken a wrong turn and ended up shin deep in a ford (it happens) so came in second. I chucked my legs in the river for ten minutes and grabbed a beer and all was well. I felt a LOT better than the previous year. The camaraderie was brilliant, and we all waited for the final people to come in before having delicious pub dinner and going to bed. God this blog’s boring isn’t it? Hopefully something bad happens to me later…..
OH PISS OFF…….
Day 2 - The Oxford Ultra - 65 miles
Day 2 started cold with glorious sunshine, so for some reason I put on a compression base layer. This just proves what a twat I can be. I’d had a brief look at weather and it said we might be in for “a bit” rain so I packed the jacket and we started off from the car park we had finished in the night before, just after 8am. Rob (or Lost Boy as we shall now call him) sped off up front. With everyone else shouting not to follow him. With good reason.
It all started SO well……
We all had a days running in our legs and we had already lost 2 challengers so the atmosphere was a little more muted this morning. We knew it was a long way, plus we had to risk out lives running through Reading at about 6pm. It was like we were all marching into our own funeral. 4 miles in and I was too hot and on my own Base layer off, trotters trotting nicely, and I settled in for the long, lonely slog that was going to be day 2. I didn’t have a strategy for the day other than finish it. I ran at 11 min miles for as long as I felt like it, walked at 15 min miles when I wanted to and was making good progress into checkpoint one - where as you can see, I was still smiling.
Happy face. This would not last.
It had started to rain a bit, so I debated putting on my jacket then thought “nah, it’ll pass”. Then it really started raining. Then all that is good in the world was sucked out of it in a vortex of armageddon like rain clouds, and it started fucking shitting it down. It did this for 3 hours. THREE. HOURS.
Here comes the rain……
No pictures of me totally drenched because my phone would’t work it was that wet…….
This part of the route is basically though the British jungle. It’s overgrown national trust path, which in the sunshine would be glorious, in the rain is horrendous. The path had got super slippery where it had been so dry for weeks before, and I was wearing my lightest trail shoes as I had been expecting hard packed trail. Cue me being like bambi on ice, with my rain jacket on but sticking to me as the wind blew and making me cold, everything soaked, EVERYTHING. No let up. My sense of humour was failing. I couldn’t even use my phone because it was too wet. My hands started to wrinkle like I had been in the bath.
Welcome to the Jungle.
At mile 17 I stopped under a railway bridge to take stock, and attempt to look at the weather and eat some crisps. I managed to get through to my boyfriend who told me that I was indeed running away from the weather and it would get better. I thought he might be lying. I decided to believe him for my own sanity. Mega props to Ultimate Direction for the Fastback 25 and it’s waterproof qualities - my dry warm kit for the night section was still dry. I had to keep going. But my mood was 70% rat at this point. It continued to hammer it down for the next 10-15 miles. Spikey sideways rain. Big sloppy rain. Think-it’s-going-to-stop-and-then-it-doesn’t rain. When it finally did start to stop, the pain was almost worth it for the relief. And then the sun came out. It was momentarily joyful.
Sun’s out! Face out!
By the time I reached checkpoint 2, we had lost a further 2 people due to the weather. Lost Boy had got lost again. There were now 8 of us left in the challenge. I got my pasta down my neck hole and a sandwich for the ‘journey’, and started off to the next checkpoint. It was at this point the demons started chasing me, and eventually caught up around mile 30.
Being alone on these long runs is hard, especially for those of us that suffer with mental health problems. I didn’t want to use my phone because I knew I needed the battery when my watch inevitably ran out. I was slipping further and further into the “not good enough” hole. I was completely out of love for what I was doing. I couldn’t run properly, I was too slow, I wasn’t a real runner, I was a let down to people, what I was doing was worthless, nobody cared and I was probably going to fail so might as well give up now. I know that I portray this image of wonderment and idioticness, but the monkeys on bicycles in our brains can get to us all, at any time. Instead of fighting it, I let it sit on me for a few hours. I did an instagram update, I had a mini cry and I got on with it. Little steps forward, all of them a bit more towards the end of the day. I was trying to find something to take my mind off my hideous self, so I decided to take photos of all the discarded clothing that I was seeing on my little trot. There is a LOT of it. I decided I would make it into a coffee table book to sell at Christmas in Urban Outfitters and call it “DUDE WHERE’S MY BRA? The Thames Path - A Pictoral Guide”. Please see my instagram for exclusive content.
One of my exclusive shots of some underpants on the Thames Path.
After the third checkpoint I started to see out of the fog of misery. Steve (head marshall) had gone and got me a veggie sausage roll, a banana and some peanuts and I felt like kissing him. They really do look after you, this race company. He also gave me a tracker (an electronic on, not the snack bar)and said we all had to have one because Lost Boy was getting constantly lost and also READING. LOL Rob. LOL Reading. LOL. I was very tired, but I knew that at the next CP, I would meet my sister so have someone to shout at, I mean run with, for the night section, and that spurred me on. A lot of this part of the path I had covered on the Autumn 100 back in October and obvs in the same race a year ago, so it was easy to follow and I didn’t need to do much nav. Reading was horrible, but when I got to the final checkpoint, my sister was there and I had someone to chat to and moan at. She’s so lucky. Also, the sun had come out (the massive bastard). Sadly, even that couldn’t make Reading look good. Even painting Reading gold and parading unicorns through it can’t make Reading look good.
Top tip, kiddos. Yabbering away with your sister will make you miss signs and I missed a very obvious one, putting me on the wrong side of the river and giving me a 2.5 mile out and back that I certainly didn’t need. It was getting dark and I was exhausted. I had a very high calorie deficit and I managed 9.30 min miles in my anger at going wrong, which was not my best idea. Head torches on for the last bit (which I have done before) AND I GET LOST AGAIN! This time in the deer park. So my 13 mile run with my sister turns into a 17 mile run and I come in at about 14 hours for this stage at 11.20pm. No dinner. BUT FIRST LADY TROPHY! Always good when you come first but you have also come almost last. That’s really winning.
Beautiful end to a shitty day
When I get to my hotel, there is a massive glorious spider pal above my bed, that I politely ask the man at reception to remove for me, so it doesn’t get in my mouth when I am asleep. `The man refers to me as one of those “hysterical women” who jumps on chairs. The man doesn’t realise who he is talking to. The man gets ‘the stare’ and the following sentence:
“Hysterical woman? Cool. Here’s the thing. I would remove spider guy if there was a big enough glass in my room. There is not. I have just run 70 miles and have paid quite a lot to stay here. Also, if I was a man would you have described me as ‘hysterical’”? The man looks scared. The man should be scared.
The man comes to my room with a glass and is scared of the big spider and has to go get a bigger glass. He then produces half a bottle of red wine as a sorry. I forgive the man. 4/5 on TripAdvisor.
I go to bed with no dinner, and no spider pal.
Winning and losing is quite something.
DAY 3: The Windsor Ultra - 43 miles.
Breakfast of campions this morning - some hotel biscuits. TripAdvisor rating down to 3/5. I’m almost late for the start, due to me thinking the start is closer than it is (5 hours sleep not great) but the lovely Steve picks me up and I literally jump out of the car and start running with BBR’s very own Dan Barratt. Today will be better because he is here and he is wonderful.
LOOK DAN IS HERE!
It’s sunny and glorious and me and Dan are hammering out a good pace of 5mph. The first ten miles fly by. My calves are killing me but I medicate with caffeine bullets and dips in the Thames. There are a lot of what I am calling “day trippers” here today - people only doing one day - so there is no way I am going to win. I am going to try and not let my legs blow up, although I don’t really know what blow up means. Me and Dan talk about it for a bit. We wonder what it would look like if someones calves ACTUALLY DID blow up. We get to Windsor - I have never been there before- and its really quite nice. I can understand why people have weddings there. We stop in the shop for a San Pellegrino and it is delightful.
Dan produces some magic treats from America. These include birthday cake flavour GU and Ginger Beer Shot Bloks. I feel like I love Dan. About 12 miles from the end, at the last aid station we are met by the beautiful face of Ultimate Hell Week winner and all round total badass Claire Rees. She is wonderful and I love her but I am scared because she is the fastest of all the beasts. She’s come for a run and a chat and has bought pizza. I decide I no longer love Dan, I now love only Claire.
It’s funny what running with other people does for you. I am so lifted by Dan and Claire and we run more than walk, laughing and catching up and generally having a nice time time. My calves don’t hurt anymore and I am having the best time. About 6 miles from the end we stop for a beer - why not? I’m not going to win and I am thirsty. I know I am tired but my two pals are making it so much fun. We trot out the last 6 miles with fizzy beer tums, and as we come into the finish, it starts to rain. I feel happy and strong and that is totally down to the company that I have kept today. This little community I am part of makes everything better.
The Dream Team, end of day 3. No trophies but smiles all round.
That night I stay in a hotel in Kingston. There is a wedding on. But I do get dinner. And a bath. One more day to go. One more day until I can say I have achieved what I set out to do.
DAY 4: The Richmond Ultra - 31 miles.
I wake up and attempt to get out of bed, promptly falling over because my legs don’t work. I feel like Pinocchio with rickets. Breakfast this morning is a delight - one smooshed up banana I found in my bag, hotel biscuits and a packet of salt and vinegar squares. I am such a winner, I think to myself.
I head down to the start and am astonished to find about 40 people there - it’s a London Ultra on a Sunday - of course it’s gonna be busy, but I am so used to my little group of pals I am kind of annoyed that everyone else has crashed the party. But then I find a running dog and it’s all OK.
Final day. Lets do this.
31 miles seems like nothing after the last few days, but don’t be fooled - it’s a long way. I have told my friends that I will be in at 5pm - giving me 9 hours to do the distance. I now realise that this is stupid and text them saying I will be there nearer 3, It can’t take me 9 hours to do 31 miles…can it?
The klaxon goes and we start - literally everyone apart from the full challengers runs off at 7 min miles. I feel pathetic. I trot along with a few of the slower people having a chat and visualising the finish. My legs don’t feel as bad as they did yesterday and I know I am going to finish. I keep feeling like I might cry, but I push it away, Now is not the time for crying. I know this stretch of the run - I have done it a million times before - it’s my turf and I am very much at home here. I remember when I trained for my first marathon, and diligently ran up and down here at the weekends, and then I think about the journey I have come on since those days, 6 years ago, and feel like I might cry again. I distract myself by continuing to take pictures of discarded clothing for my best selling coffee table book.
Last bits of green on the way home…
The first aid station comes and goes and I am very much at the back of the pack. I don’t care. I am making good time considering. It’s funny, but people keep coming in behind me having got lost - I have no idea how this has happened to them. It’s a straight path!
Just after 12 miles, I spot a familiar red vest and see it’s one of the BBR crew in the shape of Richard McDowell, possibly one of the best marathon runners that we have in this country. This year he ‘accidently” came 11th British male (this includes ALL the elites) at London Marathon, with a time of 2.27.56. This man is a fucking MACHINE. He has his son Wilf in a running buggy. I pray this slows him down - he’s come to pace me.
Familiar sights start to come into view.
I always feel really bad running with these mega fast runners. Sometimes I feel like a science project, like they want to see why I go slow and how I go slow, but Rich is nothing but supportive. We chat about what happened at London and his plans to rip Bournemouth Marathon a new one. I know I am running too fast, but again I am having the BEST time chatting to him. Again I run more than walk. Wilf is a funny distraction. He’s eating cucumber sticks. I am running 9.30 in miles over 150 miles into a race. The world is a funny place. We come into town and suddenly there are cars and buses and people and I hate it. I want the quiet of the trails back. We go past the Houses of Parliament and down Embankment and at Waterloo Bridge, Rich leaves me. I am slightly relieved, and walk the next mile as recovery. I now have only 11 miles to go. I have covered 21 miles in 4 hours. I text my friends to tell them I might be early.
Double whammy - clothes AND bridge
I get to the final aid station at Wapping and give Steve a hug. I can almost smell the finish and I know the route. I press on with a couple of other slower runners, still running with walking breaks in between. I cannot wait to finish. Under the tunnel at Greenwich and through the nightmare that is the building site round the O2 and I catch a glimpse of the Thames Barrier. I am over 3 hours earlier than I thought I would be.
Such an ugly, beautiful sight……
Finally I see the end. There is a slide in the kids playground that I slide down, and I am done. I have finished the BRC Thames Path Challenge. I am the only female finisher for 2018, and only the 3rd female finisher over the events 6 year history. I have broken the female record for the course by about 3 hours. I am overjoyed and relieved. Nobody is there to meet me because I have come in too early. I have a really big trophy.
Finish like a pro.
Professional photo shoot.
My best friends turn up and I am jubilant. We go to the pub and I am full of happiness and bravado. It’s not until later, when I am at dinner with my boyfriend that I finally burst into tears. I have achieved something that I honestly did not 100% believe I could do. I am immensely proud of myself, I am exhausted but I am not broken. I hope that every single person that reads this blog can take from this that YOU have more in you than you think. There were times when I wanted to stop. There was a full 8 hours of darkness on day 2. This is not an easy race. It’s mentally challenging, it’s physically hard in that its so flat (hill means enforced walking, flat does not) and the drop out rate is high, mainly due to the flat, monotonous and brutal (when it rains) nature of the trail. But completing something like this - it will make you strong. And it will make you believe in yourself.
Massive thanks to every single person who helped me finish. Huge props to Ultra Running Limited, who are a brilliant, small company that deserve to be recognised and supported. The way they treat their runners is second to none. Make sure you look at their races and get involved.
Thank you to all the people I ran with and met along the way, and my family and friends for being kind and putting up with me nagging them. Thanks to the Do-Badders for pacing and to my sister for putting up with my ratty nature. And massive thanks to Julius and Oscar for looking after me post race.
So what’s next? I have a few more marathons this year (like 10 more) a few more Ultras this year (maybe 3 more) and then it’s adventure time come November and December, when I set off to Namibia and Panama to attempt to run 300K across the Namib Desert and 200K coast to coast through the Panamanian Jungle with the lovely Rat Race Crew. All standard stuff.
Until next time…….