- Kerry Sutton
Thames Path 100 ~ Rob Kenny
A COVID-safe staggered start meant the Thames Path 100 runners were spread out, but the riverbank in West London was busy - people getting out to row, paddle board, picnic or just walk the dog.
“How far are you going?”
“… Oh my goodness”
Little ego-boosts like this, combined with fresh legs and the holiday atmosphere meant that the early miles rolled by easily enough. Of course, there was a long, long way still to go.
I’d already come a long way to get to the starting line. This was the culmination of what had turned out to be almost two years of preparation. I’d been doing marathons for a while, and had completed a few 100km races, though not particularly competently. I’d wanted to try a hundred miles, and TP100 (which runs along the river from Richmond to Oxford, my home-town) seemed like the perfect goal. But 100 miles was clearly a serious step up.
To get a sense of what I was in for, I volunteered at the aid stations 85 miles in at TP100 in 2019, which was a mix of inspiring and appalling. It can get very cold by the river at night, particularly if you’re tired. I looked after one woman who I was worried was hypothermic, and was pondering calling 999. However, after 30 minutes kip by a radiator, she got back to her feet and finished the remaining 15 miles of the race in good style. And I saw folks who had been slogging away for 24 hours but who missed the aid station cut-off time and saw their race end there. (Even if you’re not going to run with one of their races, I thoroughly recommend volunteering with Centurion Running, the TP100 organisers - it’s a great community.)
I also got disciplined about training, and started working with Kerry. Under her guidance I built up to around 60kms per week. In my case this was based on a long slow run on Sunday mornings, and several 1 hour sessions during the week. This gradual build-up, plus attention to shoes and more time on trails meant I was able to do this without an injury at any point. Previously I’d had knee problems bad enough that a consultant had suggested giving up running entirely. However, a robust Australian physio had taken an acupuncture needle and pushed it under my kneecap. “Soft as butter”, she declared, and told me I’d be fine. She was right.
Another part of preparation had been some trial races, but these did not go to plan. Race to the King was aborted at the last minute due to a family emergency. I quickly signed myself up to Race to the Stones as a replacement, made it half way through, but had to drop out due to heart palpitations (which turned out to be inconsequential, but didn’t feel that way at the time). Sympathy and support from Kerry helped me refocus each time.
However, the Thames Challenge, a 100k race over much of the same route as TP100, did go as planned, and that was a massive morale booster. Crucially, I was still partially running at the end, and felt I could go further, which had certainly not been the case on my previous attempts at this distance. 100 miles suddenly seemed more achievable. I did get a telling off from Kerry for spending too long at the checkpoints drinking tea though.
By the spring of this year it felt like all the pieces were in place for the race, which was to happen on 2nd May. But then there was a pandemic. In March we got notification that the race was postponed to September. So plans needed to be redrawn once again, to keep things ticking over for a few months before peaking in the late summer. A virtual 100 mile race (over four days) provided a focus in the meantime, and was another confidence booster.
I arrived at the start line for TP100 mentally and physically ready. A forecast for near perfect weather meant I really had no excuses. Running pack and drop bags had been packed and repacked. It was time to go. The start was almost anti-climactic. No race briefing, no starters’ arch, no fidgety crowd of runners eager for the off – just a quick temperature check and ‘start when you’re ready’. So I did.
My plan was to jog along at a sedate 6:30 mins per km, and gradually introduce more walking into the mix through the first half of the race (averaging 7 mins overall). I anticipated an appreciable slowing in the second half, with an overall goal of 24 hours. Despite best intentions - and warnings - I ended up going a bit faster than 6:30 in the early stages, surrendering to the adrenalin and what was a glorious running day.
Cruising through Kingston -photos courtesy of Stuart March
The miles fell away, though of course at this stage of a long race, you know that you are just paying the price of admission to the real race that will begin much later, when your energy is drained, your feet are sore, and an act of will is required to keep going.
Gradually the busy river banks of West London gave way to the countryside beyond Windsor. Run 15 mins, walk 5; run 15, walk 5; repeat; repeat; repeat. Checkpoint: refill bottles, grab chocolate and Babybels, shout a ‘thanks’ to the volunteers, get going again. (No cups of tea this time). Podcasts and whiled away the time.
I was still moving well at Hurley (70k in), when – to my astonishment and delight – Kerry appeared at the riverbank to cheer me on. After nine hours mostly in my own head, it was a joy to have a quick chat and some encouragement.
Thus fortified, I was soon at the half-way aid station at Henley, a little before sunset. I put on a dry shirt, scoffed some Marmite cashews and (wary of hypothermia) stuffed a warm top into my bag. Quite unnecessary as it turned out – some weight I needn’t have carried 80km.
Beyond Reading my race plan allowed me to drop my pace to 10 minute kms, no more than a brisk walking pace. However, for the time being I was still putting in plenty of running. When I got to Reading I picked up my pacer, Andrew Heaney. This (or perhaps the delicious raspberry yoghurt he gave me) provided a turbocharge, and we roared through to Whitchurch at 7:40 pace.
We were a bit more sober through to the next aid station at Goring (114km), another drop bag location. Despite having spent weeks thinking about what I might want out of that bag at that point of the race, the answer was ‘nothing’, and so we headed out into the night again.
Now the stresses began to tell. My body clock clearly resented vigorous exercise at 1am, and I’d been on the move for over 16 hours. The 15 min runs seemed to be interminable.
Me: “Hmm, feels like we must almost be at the end of the 15 min session, I’ll just have a quick look at my watch to see if it’s time for a walk.”
Treacherous watch: “6 mins”
Do an ultra – you’ll love it
We arrived into Wallingford only slightly behind schedule, and our next destination was Clifton Hampden, where I’d marshalled the year before. However, in between the two were miles of grassy fields. A joy on a sunny day, but at 3am that meant heavy dew, and soon enough soaked feet. Somewhat to my surprise, I’d been blister-free until this point, but that quickly began to change. In particular, a folded crease developed in the skin under the ball of one foot, which caused sharp pain with every step. Running was now over.
When we got to Clifton Hampden I looked much like the poor souls I’d tended to last year. In my mind, we were in there for a quick cup of coffee, a foot inspection and then were on our way. My watch says it was 30 minutes.
It was becoming clear that my ‘A’ Target of 24 hours wasn’t going to happen. But we were well inside the cut-offs, so completion was not in doubt. It was simply a matter of trudging home over the remaining 24km. (Andrew, who had previously been planning to get to the finish and then run back to his car at Reading, nobly put up with this derailment of his plans). Not too long after Clifton Hampden the sun came up, lifting my spirits, and much of the rest was on very familiar trails from my training. I have never been more delighted to see the Oxford ring road.
A final clamber up some evil steps to cross the river to the finish line, and we were done - a total of 25 hours 45 minutes.
Thanks for the finisher's buckle, but what I really want is a chair.
Four days later, I’m still a bit limpy, and still in the ‘never again’ phase. But I’m already starting to think about what I might do differently another time. (Wet weather shoes in the drop bag? Take the bloody pain killers rather than just carry them 100 miles?) We’ll see.
What might tempt me back? In many ways ultras are quite a solitary activity -many weeks of solo training, and hours on the day when you’re willing your own body on. But no one crosses the line alone. The races only happen because of many selfless volunteers, and in my case I know there is no way I would have made it the 100 miles without all the support Kerry and my pacer Andrew gave me. The wider community is fantastic, far more about mutual support than competition. Of course there is satisfaction in knowing you’ve done these distances – it feels like having a superpower – but actually it is the community that is best, and I’m not sure I could bear to have this be my last race and have to say goodbye.