The Thames Ring is a 248-mile race, which takes place over 5 days.  It was first run in 2009 and takes place every 2 years. I marshaled at the Lower Heyford (200 mile) checkpoint in 2011 and got to witness the race first hand.

Entering the race hadn’t really been on my radar until Stouty suggested we tackle it with words like “Britain’s longest non-stop race” fitting the criteria of a hardcore race we could tackle together. We entered, Stouty promptly pleaded injury and then went all triathlon on me leaving me to face the challenge alone, thanks mate!

I also had the good fortune to receive an entry into the GUCR which was scheduled to take place 5 weeks earlier and I hadn’t wanted to turn that down as it was my target build up race for Spartathlon and I had missed out in the ballot in 2012 and wanted to tackle it once more and get a decent result.

So the race calendar started to take shape with the GUCR as an “A” race, 5 weeks rest and low key activity and then tackle the Thames Ring which would purely be a fun run and one I was looking to simply complete and then I could focus on Spartathlon. With the benefit of hindsight there’s two mistakes I’ve made there already which I’ll come onto later.

As the GUCR was finished, I started to plan the Thames Ring event. I was generally familiar with most of the route (i.e. Thames Path and Grand Union Canal area). I had recce’d the Banbury to Oxford leg leaving the Thames Path to Grand Union Canal section and top end of the Oxford Canal the only areas I was not familiar at all with. However, you are provided with detailed instructions, the route runs next to a river or a canal so I wasn’t unduly worried to be honest although I was aware that after 3-4 days of a lack of sleep simple decisions could become more difficult!

2013 Thames Ring Paul Ali Start 04 Lindley, Myself, Michael & Rajeev at the start.

As we got closer to the event, I became aware a few other regulars of the GUCR were taking part (Lindley, Rajeev, Keith) and I also had a new running buddy Michael Sartorious, we have run a few events together now and are both Dads at the same school so we had chatted about the race beforehand and had agreed to set out together and see how we got on. We are generally fairly similar in times and abilities although Michael is quicker than me over shorter distances but I’ve probably got a bit more experience of long endurance events and so thought we would complement each other quite well.

2013 Thames Ring Paul Ali Start 01Race HQ

In terms of the event itself, it starts on Wednesday at 9am and finishes by 1pm on the Sunday. There were 9 checkpoints space around 25 miles apart where runners could access drop bags, food, water or even grab some rest as long as they were ahead of the cut-off time at each checkpoint. Putting on an event this long requires a lot of planning, time, effort and support as there will be a huge amount of race spread from people finishing in possibly 60 hours to those finishing in just under 100 hours. It was good to see a few familiar names would be assisting at checkpoints and I was looking forward to seeing a few people around the course.

I had struggled to develop a race plan for this event. The main reason was the sleep angle with questions like; How much sleep will I need? When will I need it? What if I’m at a checkpoint and not sure I need sleep, should I stay or should I go? I will also admit night legs aren’t my strongest, I’ve got a little better but when you’re not fantastic at lasting one night without sleep then how the hell I was going to manage up to 4 nights with limited sleep was incomprehensible (and another reason I decided to sign up to find out how I coped).

I received a few bits of advice here and there and then pieced together my Plan A, Plan B and Plan C. Plan A was the slightly unrealistic, “A” race, dream goal of 70 hours. I wasn’t going to follow this plan but wanted to have a strategy in place in terms of stops and rests if I was ahead of schedule. Plan B was the realistic goal of 80 hours and Plan C was my backup plan of 90 hours. However, I was prepared to be flexible and improvise during the race based on how I was doing but I find it useful to have a bit of paper with a few ideas to refer to during a race.

As the final few days approached, I organised my gear into two bags and purchased some additional food supplies so I could carry some of my favourite snacks between checkpoints. I packed several kit changes, about 8 pairs of socks, spare trainers, wet gear, sleeping bags, food, gels, medical kit, torches, batteries, spare torches, iPod, spare iPod… yes it’s going to be a long one. One observation I had made whilst crewing in 2011 was to organise your bags well and so I packed different kit and equipment into different bags and labeled these making everything easy to find. I also organised a separate “night bag” with the night essentials (torch, batteries etc.) and put a separate sock bag (with small towel, spare socks, sudocreme and compeed plasters) in easily accessible places.

 2013 Thames Ring Paul Ali Start 03

Ready to go at the start.

I was fortunate to live close to Streatley and slept at home the night before and got a lift to the start from my Dad Baz after picking up Lindley who had been staying in a local hotel. We arrived about an hour before the start, registered and met and caught up with fellow runners before the Race briefing and the start.

Start to Checkpoint 1 (Wed 9am – Wed 2pm, 27.3 miles)

At 9am, we were off along the river. About a minute into the race Keith pointed out my gaiters weren’t securely fastened and I paused to attend to this and then carried on from the back finding myself with the ever chatty Rajeev who then managed to drop his hand held water bottle into the river 2 minutes into the race. We stopped and I approached a guy in a boat to borrow a net and Rajeev managed to fish his bottle out of the river before carrying on.

I carried on and drifted ahead of Rajeev to find Michael waiting for me as he didn’t know where I had gotten. We carried on together and ran the familiar trails from Streatley through Whitchurch towards Mapledurham and then into Reading, all straightforward terrain and route for Thames Trot veterans. The weather was reasonably cool and we had a very light shower during the morning but nothing too heavy. The forecast suggested improving conditions from the start of the race to a hot weekend.. something to look forward to. That will be a personal best streak of 2 Ultra’s and no bad weather!

2013 Thames Ring Paul Ali Reading 03Passing my workplace in Reading.

At Reading, the Thames Path runs right behind the office I work at and as we approached I fired off a quick text to my wife (who works there) and a couple of people I work with who were going to pop out and wave. As I approached, I could see a line of about 20 people all outside waiting for me. I pulled a rubbish “Mobot” pose, gave the wife a sweaty kiss and high fived the line of people before carrying on and a group of onlookers from the windows. It was a brilliant reception from the guys who had cheered and applauded the runners and I did think in terms of fan support that would probably be the highlight of the race knowing how low key these events can be.

2013 Thames Ring Paul Ali Reading 01

Office hero status currently safe 10 miles in.

We carried on along the Thames Path towards Henley where Michael and I hooked up with Javed (2 time Thames Ring finisher) and Ian as we started to enter a busy Henley area. The Henley regatta was on at this time and the Thames Path was blocked and we were diverted around the crowds of people well groomed and attired for the event as the small band of smelly sweaty runners plodded past. In fact, it was so busy here that I decided to walk as it was impossible to run otherwise you would be constantly darting between people and gaps to make a few quick steps, with 225 miles still to go I didn’t think an extra 20 minutes would make much difference and we walked through this area spotting over-priced beer, sun hats and extravagantly striped blazers.

We eventually arrived at the first Checkpoint in Hurley in 4hrs 50mins (Wed 1.50pm) and I had planned to be out by 2pm so on target. The lead runner had come through  in 3hrs 40mins which prompted a comment of “It feels like there will be a new course record or a blowout at some point”, that pace felt too quick especially if you had another 9 marathons to go.

2013 Thames Ring Paul Ali CP1

Checkpoint 1, Hurley.

I grabbed a slice of pizza from Lucy Gettins, drank some energy drinks and then waited for Michael. I did have the pleasure of meeting Peter Foxall for the first time when I saw one of the marshals wearing a 2006 Spartathlon T-Shirt. “Any tips for Sparta?” I asked. “Don’t hang around at checkpoints, grab what you need and pass through”came the advice. Good advice and noted for the next big one.

Checkpoint 1 Hurley to Checkpoint 2 Chertsey (27.8 miles, 55 miles total)

Michael and I head off together towards Checkpoint 2 and we were joined by Ian Thomas for a little while before he drifted of ahead. The temperature was picking up and we had a pleasant warm afternoon as we continued along the Thames River.

However, things weren’t going so well for me and I found I couldn’t maintain an easy pace and kept stopping and starting and as a result our mile times started to drift. Essentially, I hadn’t recovered or rested sufficiently from the GUCR run and I could feel this now with my feeling of lethargy.

Michael to be fair kept prompting us to keep moving onwards and I kept responding but it was a minimum effort to keep going and it was rarely me suggesting when we run, so thanks for keeping me going there. I tweeted “It’s gonna be a long walk” as I knew right there that I didn’t have my usual level of energy for this race.

We stopped at a lock on the way and asked the lock keeper if there was a water tap available. There wasn’t but he kindly filled up our bottles from his hut and as a bonus he mentioned there was a public toilet available aswell, just at the time I needed it, bonus!

We continued on and I must admit to a wave of drowsiness around 6pm and so my conversation was pretty minimal at this point as we plodded on.

We passed Windsor Castle (stopping for a brief photo) on the way and followed the very familiar route of the Thames Path where we had both run up and down this area on the diverted 2013 Thames Path Ultra and we eventually arrived at the second Checkpoint after a real stop start effort around 8.10pm on Wed just a few minutes over the planned 8pm time.

2013 Thames Ring Paul Ali CP2 01

Checkpoint 2.

We stopped and sat down and grabbed some food and drink watching James Adams grabbing and delivering drop bags quicker than he runs. At this point, I got an extra layer ready along with my head-torch, backup torch, spare batteries and a buff ready for the night leg and changed my socks for the first time at this point. I considered foot care one of the most important elements of this race as I didn’t want to have to try and march out 150 miles with blistered feet, that would be horrendous!

CP 2 Chertsey to CP 3 Yiewsley (27.2 miles, 82.3 miles total)

Michael and I carried on together and I don’t really recall seeing many people along this leg apart from Dudley Manning who passed us.

It took a couple of hours to get dark and we then got the head torches out as we completed the Thames River leg just after Richmond and detoured of this path to pickup the Grand Union Canal just after Syon Park. Michael did most of the navigating here as his memory recollection of the Thames Path route was better than mine and despite a tiny blip when we took a turn too early we managed to work our way onto the Grand Union Canal in the darkness.

We plodded the familiar canal paths and my feet were feeling pretty sore and I could feel a few hot spots coming on. I survived pretty well at the GUCR and was quite surprised how sore my feet were feeling this early in despite using the same shoes, socks and sock changes.

We continued on during the night at a good marching pace but not running much at all. I was feeling pretty tired as we got into the early hours but I had planned to have 2 hours rest at the next Checkpoint. Michael was unconvinced at first and wanted to plough on but he had started to feel his Achilles and perhaps getting into the early hours and feeling tired himself influenced his view.

We eventually arrived at Checkpoint 3 at 4am in the morning about 2 hours behind Plan B now to be greeted and well attended by Nici Griffin, Lucy Gettins again and a few others. I asked where could we sleep and Nici pointed me at a bit of pavement a few metres away and suggested that was the best spot. I had something to eat before sleeping trying to maintain the regular foot intake and left instructions to be woken in 2 hours and then jumped into the sleeping bag inside the bivvy bag pulled it over my head and settled down for a snooze. Stephen Woodus kindly gave me some ear-plugs to use.

2013 Thames Ring Paul Ali CP3 02

Luxurious accomodation at Checkpoint 3.

I woke an hour later not feeling too bad sleep wise but feeling cold (it was 5am by now) and spotting workers a few yards away walking towards their early shifts.  I organised my kit and gave Michael a nudge and mentioned I was pretty desperate for the loo and was going to suggest I head on and find some facilities and then walk until he caught up.

Just before I left I asked Lucy Gettins if there were any facilities available ahead, hoping for some directions to a public loo close by. Well, do you know what they did? They built me a portaloo! As soon as it was setup I dived in and christened it feeling a little uncomfortable that people were about 2 metres away and had all seen me enter with a big roll of toilet paper. I think Nici was a little put out as she had been desperate for the loo for a couple of hours.. believe me, my need was pressing.

2013 Thames Ring Paul Ali CP3 01Michael and I after a 1hrs sleep at Checkpoint 3.

As Michael was still organising himself and looking at his Achilles, I set off at a slow place trying to get the stiffness out of my legs. Javed was leaving around the same time as me and complaining of blisters which he normally doesn’t suffer from so the problems weren’t limited to me.

2013 Thames Ring Paul Ali CP3

Forced wave leaving Checkpoint 3.

A short while later I got a text from Michael saying he was still attending to his Achilles and was going to put a cold compress on it for 20 minutes and I should just crack on. With stops and rests at checkpoints there was a good chance of catching up again and I marched on as I didn’t really feel like running as my feet and now knees were starting to feel sore.

The temperature was cool at first and then warmed up as I made my way along the Grand Union Canal towards the next checkpoint. I received some bad news a little while later that Michael had dropped which was a bit of a crushing blow as he had worked me through CP 2 to 3 and now wouldn’t be around to accompany me.

To be honest I had been having some self doubts around this time. I admitted to myself my rest or recovery from the GUCR could have been better and I started to realise that my heart wasn’t in this race. GUCR and Spartathlon were the 2013 goals and this was just another Ultra I wanted to tick off the bucket list, the only problem was this was one of the toughest events on that list due to the massive distance involved! By this time I was marching steadily but hardly running, my feet and knees were sore, my buddy had dropped and I was questioning whether I really wanted to continue to death march the remainder of the race.

I spoke to my wife Sal and Stouty, sent a couple of texts and received the expected reverse psychology from Sal (why are you quitting?) and the advice from Stouty to think about Sparta although he did remind me that if I did quit, he knew I would have to comeback again to finish the job.

I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. At that point I simply didn’t fancy completing the race and marching out another 3 days non-stop that sounded totally ridiculous and a completely stupid idea. We’ve all had low moments in a race before but this was the closest I have seriously come to giving up.

I started to think of the consequences of quitting, the “No DNF” record gone and not through a real reason like an unfortunate injury but a feeble I couldn’t hack it reason. I would have to write a blog and admit my failure, my office hero status would be destroyed, I was going to be miserable as hell a few days (weeks?) later… this was a tough call.

I eventually walked into Checkpoint 4 106 miles in at about 12.15pm on the Thursday…

2013 Thames Ring Paul Ali CP3 03

After Checkpoint 4. More stubble appearing.

Checkpoint 4 Berkhamsted to Checkpoint 5 Milton Keynes (24.3 miles, 130.2 miles total)

The guys at Checkpoint 4 turned me around. I was greeted by James Elson, Lindley Chambers (who had unfortunately dropped earlier with a back injury), Sue Albiston, Nici Griffin (again) and also met Nick Green and Dave “Foxy” Bayley for the first time. I had a sit down, a bacon sandwich, patched up my feet, had a quick massage from a lovely lady whose name I didn’t get (thank you) and then received some verbal encouragement.

I knew some of the “You’re doing great” type comments weren’t really justified as this was a slow 100 mile leg and a sub par performance so far but the sentiments were appreciated. They were making the effort to help me make the effort and so half an hour later I plodded out of the checkpoint. Lindley escorted me for a little while filling me in on the race details (the original leader had in fact dropped and someone else was now in the lead) and tried to keep my spirits up which was much appreciated.

I marched in a relentless fashion, running was not even considered I didn’t have the heart for it, but I did have some focus on not quitting so a fast walk was the compromise between the two.

The weather was pretty warm and I had to take advantage of the water from the lock taps (some are open but some require use of the British Waterways key which is essential on a hot day) to top up my water supplies. I carried 2 x 500ml bottles and had rationed my drinking each leg to a gulp each mile in case I couldn’t top up my supplies. However, when I found a tap I would drink a lot more and then fill both bottles up to their maximum capacity.

This leg was hard, I wasn’t even half way yet and had to do this all again and was still at the counting up phase rather than the counting down phase.

I trudged my way through a warm Thursday afternoon and was greeted about a mile away from the Checkpoint by fellow GUCR runner Glyn Rayman who lived nearby and was helping out. He escorted me into the Checkpoint and I arrived at 7.45pm. I was the only runner (walker) apart from 1 who was asleep and had the attention of all the helpers including Glyn, Sarah Thorne, Ali Nuttall (who had been following Stephen Woodus and assisting at all the Checkpoints) and a couple of other who I’ve forgotten (apologies chaps) and Foxy also made a re-appearance. I slumped into a chair and was fed pizza, ice-cream and I then decided to try for a sleep as I wasn’t sure I would survive the 7-8 hours until the next Checkpoint.

Unfortunately, the Checkpoint was positioned underneath a busy bridge with lots of traffic and I couldn’t drop off at all (more ear plugs would have helped) and so I got up, kit ready and headed out at 9.30pm. Just over 36 hours had now elapsed since the start of the race and I had only covered 130 miles with 1 hour sleep, I had finished the GUCR 3 hrs quicker than this and Sparta would laugh in my face with that effort.. yes my mood was taking a dip.

Checkpoint 5 Milton Keynes to Checkpoint 6 Nether Heyford (27 miles, 157.1 miles total)

I set out from Milton Keynes in the light around 9pm not sure whether I would actually make the next Checkpoint without some sleep and so I grabbed a second foil blanket thinking I could use one as a ground sheet and another as a blanket if needed . I travelled by myself through the park area moving through the town centre proper and then out into a more remote area where the path was narrow and lumpy and wet.

I was maintaining a steady march but as the evening moved from gloominess to darkness I could feel myself becoming more and more tired until I arrived at a point where I needed to lie down. I walked on for a mile or two trying to find a quiet remote spot and eventually found a bush I could crawl into. I set up my foil blanket bed, set my alarm for an hour and lay down on the lumpy uncomfortable ground and stared at the stars…. no I couldn’t fall asleep. I lay there for a little while and then got up stuffed everything back into my backpack and trudged on.

2013 Thames Ring Paul Ali Milton Keynes Bush

Temporary lodgings in a bush.

I marched through a second night and finally arrived at Fenny Compton where Peter Johnson and another guy whose name I forgot were waiting at the Canal Bridge to direct me to the checkpoint which was in a village hall, excellent an indoor checkpoint with a!

I arrived at 5.30am in the morning and were greeted by the checkpoint staff. Iveagh Jameson who had planned to enter but was injured made me some breakfast which I ate before settling down for a sleep in a hall. I left instructions to wake me in 5 hours as I thought I would crash out for a while.

I awoke one hour later feeling a bit refreshed but thinking I didn’t have nearly enough sleep. However, when I’m awake I can’t drop off again and so I readied my kit, used the facilities and actually cleaned my teeth which made me feel more human, patched the blistered feet up again and headed out.

CP6 Nether Heyford to CP7 Fenny Compton (26 miles, 183.1 miles total)

Peter Johnson kindly escorted me back onto the canal and we briefly chatted before he turned back.

I had left about 8.00am and the weather was warm already. I had remembered to put some sun tan lotion on and after getting my legs moving and working out some stiffness settled into the usual march along a nice stretch of the canal.

2013 Thames Ring Paul Ali Fenny ComptonLovely picturesque views along the canal.

I was now 48 hours into the race and had covered 183 miles but had only managed 2 hours sleep but leaving here I felt I had got the worst out the way and was confident of finishing the event now, with only 75 miles to go.

I was determined to start enjoying the race a bit more and despite adding a bit of time to this leg I stopped a couple of times and bought a cold drink and ice-cream and sat on a bench admiring the lovely views and day. Despite, my aches and pains it felt more like an adventure.

The Grand Union Canal crossed onto the Oxford Canal on this leg I recall as I remember crossing the bridge and heading down another route which was well described in the map and instructions which were faultless.

I plodded on but the day seemed to get longer and longer. I did the usual trick of trusting my Garmin to be 100% accurate and started to feel annoyed with myself when the checkpoint didn’t appear bang on the scheduled 26 miles.

Despite filling up en-route my water supplies had run out and I had to make it to the next checkpoint with a bit of a thirst.

I’m not sure if this leg was accurately marked as I eventually arrived at the 29 mile point with the last 3 miles playing with me as every time I turned a corner I expected the checkpoint to be there!

I arrived at the checkpoint perhaps later afternoon/early evening time and slumped into a very comfortable chair to see Woody, Chris and Ian at the Checkpoint. My knees were really swollen and Chris kindly gave me a bag of ice to use on my knees to reduce the discomfort. The checkpoint staff sorted me out with food and drink and I changed socks and patched up my feet as best I could for the umpteenth time.

Woody, Chris and Ian left ahead of me as I organised myself. There was no thought of sleeping here as I wanted to maximise the use of daylight hours and thought I could get to the next checkpoint at Lower Heyford by 2am and sleep there. After a little while I headed out again aiming for the 200 mile point.

CP7 Fenny Compton to CP8 Lower Heyford (22.8 miles, 205.9 miles total)

I set out again by myself and worked out that apart from the checkpoints I hadn’t really spoken to anyone for about 36 hours, this ultra shuffling can be a lonely business at times. I had my iPod which I used a few times but generally was quite content to march along with my own thoughts.

I continued along the path to Banbury and passed Woody and Chris who were sticking together with Ian having run on ahead. As I got into Banbury I spotted a passerby with a Morrisons bag and asked him if there was one nearby which there was. I made a quick diversion into Morrisons and bought a wrap, chocolate and some coke. As I knew Chris and Woody weren’t far behind me I bought them some coke and a chocolate bar each and headed back to the canal where I ate my little picnic and waited for the guys who appeared a few minutes later and I think were appreciative of the supplies.

We tagged along together as we exited Banbury and the evening turned darker. Both Woody and Chris were suffering injuries and the pace was slower than I had been going but I was feeling tired and appreciative of the company.

We trudged on together for a while, sometimes I would get a little ahead and then wait for them before we carried on together.

As we got within 6 miles of the next checkpoint in the middle of the night I got ahead of the guys again and then stopped to wait for them. They caught me up as I was half dozing on a bench, I was really starting to drop off now and really needed some sleep and so I told the guys that I was going to press onto the next checkpoint and get my head down. The guys had been planning on trying to push on a but further but I think they had started to change their mind and take a break.

2013 Thames Ring Paul Ali Lower Heyford 02

Some random middle of the night selfie shot.

I plodded on by myself through the middle of the night. I knew the next Checkpoint well having manned it two years ago and was looking for the tell tale signs of Lower Heyford rail station which I right next to the checkpoint. It seemed to take an eternity to get there but eventually I spotted the light of the station and was meant by Kevin Mayo who had crewed with me previously.

I immediately went to sleep on a chair and was thankful for the use of a pair of ear-plugs as we were right next to the railway station. These ear-plugs were brilliant as soon as I put them on I couldn’t hear anyone and drifted off to sleep having left instructions to let me sleep until 7.30am (5 hours).

2013 Thames Ring Paul Ali Lower Heyford

Looking ace after 2 hours sleep!

I woke up 2 hours later feeling a bit more refreshed. In fact, despite a notorious lack of ability to master the night legs I had coped reasonably well by now. Mentally, I was still alert and coherent which really surprised me. I think subconsciously my mind kept me awake knowing I was as in an event and wouldn’t let me sleep properly until I was done.

I had a bacon sandwich and a cup of tea here, readied my kit and set off.

CP8 Lower Heyford to CP 9 Abingdon (23.6 miles, 229.5 miles total)

It was light but cool and I wore a jacket over my baselayer and t-shirt as I walked through the wet dew and overgrown grass and bushes. My legs were starting to attract a number of small lacerations from thorns, bushes and stinging nettles by now but that was the least of my worries with my knees and blistered feet the main concern.

2013 Thames Ring Paul Ali Lower Heyford 03

Rest time.

The weather started to get quite warm and I removed a couple of layers as I marched on with occasional rest stops just to rest my knees and try and break up the monotony of the long march.

2013 Thames Ring Paul Ali Oxford 02

On the way from Banbury to Oxford.

I eventually arrived in Oxford and then went into Oxford Station to purchase a hot pasty and hot drink for breakfast. Having fueled up I continued along the Thames Path and bumped into a work colleague Katy who had just finished her rowing session and was heading home which was a nice bonus to see a friendly face.

2013 Thames Ring Paul Ali Oxford

Pictured just after Oxford, Day 4.

Oxford I knew was the home leg having run the Thames Trot race several times this was all familiar territory. The only issue was this was taking a lot longer than it would if I was just running the Thames Trot race.

Progress was slow, weather was hot and it was a bit of a stop start effort. I did receive a call from the Checkpoint Marshall ahead asking about my whereabouts as I must have been moving slower than they had expected. I assured them everything was ok and I would be with them in a couple of hours.

I continued my way following the Thames River from Oxford to Abingdon and as I got within a mile or two of the checkpoint was met by a Checkpoint marshal on the route looking out for runners. I said hello and continued on and finally arrived at the lock and bridge where I spotted Sam Kilpatrick waiting for me to escort me to the checkpoint which wasn’t far away.

One of the few highlights of the race for me was seeing fellow runners and familiar faces at each of the Checkpoints which always seemed to give me a lift and its hard to be all miserable and sombre when there’s someone to talk to that you haven’t seen for a while.

Ali Nuttall was also at the Checkpoint and between her and Sam I was fed and watered and then dumped all the unnecessary gear before the final push. I verbally went through my next stage timings to myself just to make sure I could process the instructions which went like “19 miles to go at 3mph is 6 to 7 hours if there are any stops along the route. Starting at 1pm will mean a 7pm-8pm finish which will still be warm and light, rain jacket or head torch not required. Fill up your bottles and then head out.” I felt like a hero just being able to get those thoughts out after only 4 hours sleep in the last 75 hours and headed out with the lift of this being the last leg. Finally!

CP9 Abingdon to Finish (18.8 miles, 248.3 miles total)

The first few miles of each leg seem to go quickly and then time seems to slow dramatically. There were a number of milestones along this route at Days Lock, Culham Lock, Benson, Wallingford and Moulsford before getting back to Streatley.

I ticked off a few early miles and was passed by Paul Corderoy (I think) out on his bike looking to track down runners and said hello. The weather was quite hot and I had forgotten to put some sun tan lotion on but I stopped a couple who had setup a picnic by the side of the river and borrowed some to put on the back of my neck which had started to burn.

I eventually got to Days Lock where I filled up both water bottles and soaked my head with water at the taps.

I haven’t really mentioned this but I had been taking ibuprofen for the past few legs to dull the pain from my knees and blistered feet but had stayed well with tolerance here. I try to avoid taking painkillers unless absolutely necessary but today it was necessary.

The pathway followed the Thames River quite closely here and there were some people swimming in the river, the weather was quite warm now and I took the opportunity to walk into the River to soak my aching and sore feet and legs which eased my physical symptoms.

I carried on and eventually arrived at Benson where I stopped at the Café to have an ice-lolly (well two ice lollies) and a cold can of coke. I slumped into the chair for a few minutes before finally pushing myself out and carrying on. By now there were only 8 miles to go but that was going to take 2.5 hrs at my current pace.

2013 Thames Ring Paul Ali Benson

Ice-lolly stop at Benson.

As I passed through Wallingford, Lindley called me on the phone. He had come back to catch me at the finish which was really nice of him and both him and Sue had taken their bikes out along the route to spot any runners. I gave him my location and it appeared we were going to cross paths.

As I carried along the path there were two incidents of note. Firstly, same lady had got herself stuck in the river unable to get out the high bank in her flip flops and dress with cigarette in one hand and bowl of water for the dog in another. As I walked passed her she slide down the bank into the river and get covered in mud,  I stopped and asked if she was alright before pulling her out and carrying on.

Minutes later a lady with a dog bounding ahead of her were coming straight for me. I stopped and stood still for the dog to pass but it careered straight into me slap bang into the “little soldiers” which winded me for a while and left me with that uncomfortable stomach ache type feeling. The woman hardly gave an apology with a “Oh he’s not normally like that” but I said never mind, muttered under my breath and carried on. Despite the winding, I was suffering far more in different places!

Lindley and Sue finally caught up with me and we chatted briefly as I plodded on towards Moulsford. I was passing very familiar places near Streatley and the end was in sight. As Lindley and Sue cycled back to the finish, the Reading Joggers coach Arthur appeared with camera and snapped a few pictures. We had a brief chat and he mentioned a few of the running club had come out to see me finish which was really nice of them.

2013 Thames Ring Paul Ali Moulsford 01

Final 5 miles to go. Picture by Sue Albiston.

I was getting close to the finish now, and was in the position where you could start to finally enjoy these last moments knowing the end was in sight. I kept stop starting as my knees were sore but was looking out for the Streatley Bridge which I soon spotted and marked the end of the journey.

2013 Thames Ring Paul Ali Streatley

Streatley Bridge, this agony will soon be over!

This was the one moment I didn’t want to end. After a long hard tiring solitary slog, enduring physical discomfort and sleep deprivation I was nearly there and I could enjoy arriving at the finish and finally sitting down.

2013 Thames Ring Paul Ali Finish 05

Job done, Superhero pose!

I headed over the bridge and was congratulated by a couple of guys out cycling who had got wind of what we were doing. They mentioned there were a few people waiting for me and suggested I ran the last hundred yards which I hadn’t planned to do at first but if there’s a camera then I’d better make the effort. I broke into a slow jog and crossed the bridge as I made my way towards Goring Village hall to be greeted by a dozen friends, supporters and marshals at the finish who gave me a fantastic reception. It felt great to have arrived at the finish to the support of some friends!

I walked into the hall where Nici Griffin was noting the finishing times. “Have I finished now?” I asked her. “Yes, you’ve finished” she replied. “No, I am finished!” I responded as I collapsed onto the floor. Job done, boy that was tough.

2013 Thames Ring Paul Ali Finish 04

I’m finished.

I was helped into a chair and congratulated by everyone with hugs (thanks for the big man hug Keith that was emotional), hand shakes and backslaps. The atmosphere, congratulations and generosity of people to come and see me at the finish was much appreciated and made the race worthwhile (well almost!).

Dick awarded me a lovely plaque and Jan organised a superb bread and butter pudding and some drink and I sat down and chatted with the people at the finish enjoy the moment and finally feeling a little satisfied with a job well done. Nici and Ali were insistent on getting a photo of each finishers feet which I was reluctant to do at first as mine felt sore. Having viewed the gallery (warning some pretty disgusting photos!) mine were not the worst.

2013 Thames Ring Paul Ali Finish 07

Pictured with the Guv’nor.

In summary, I was really pleased to have finished the event which I took on a little too soon after the GUCR to be honest. Doing both events can be achieved as lots of people have done it but I think most would admit to not being as fresh on the second event.

2013 Thames Ring Paul Ali Finish 06

Final Standing, legends!

On the downside, this is not an event to be underestimated and to be honest I wasn’t totally committed to the race at first because it wasn’t one of my “A” races which was a crazy notion as the longest non-stop race in the UK! Mentally I struggled when the pace was slowing from the recent GUCR effort and I started to suffer the usual physical symptoms and a reoccurrence of blistered feet. It was  a bit of a hammer blow when Michael withdrew through injury as we had been relying on each other which left me to complete near on 60 hours of the race by myself except for a couple of hours with Woody and Chris and the times at the checkpoint. At one point, I was close to quitting the race.. seriously close to quitting the race and losing the “No DNF” streak which you can never get back.

On the positive side, I managed to dig myself out of that hole and carry on to finish a long tough brutal event. I didn’t take gels, relied on real foods ate regularly and did not have any stomach issues whatsoever. In addition, I only managed 4 hours sleep in the 82-83 hours from start to finish and despite a few wobbles on the first day I felt remarkably alert, in control and could hold a coherent conversation at the end. If you had asked me my main concern going into the race it would have been the effects of a lack of sleep but generally this was only a minor issue which was quite surprising. Getting an hour or two’s sleep each night was enough to keep me going.

In terms of the final result, I finished the event in 82hrs 41mins. I moved a lot slower than planned but slept a lot less than planned which meant I finished not too far over the suggested 80 hour plan which wasn’t a bad result I guess. Out of the 34 starters there were 14 finishers and I was position 7th with the winner (Steve Judd) finishing in 66hrs and the last finishers arrived in 97 hours (after a fourth night).

Well done to everyone who had the confidence to tow the start line and massive congratulations to those who completed the race. It’s a tough event and both physically and mentally demanding. Special mention to Javed Bhatti who has now completed all 3 Thames Ring events, he must be a real sucker for punishment!

Thank you to the organisers, supporters and volunteers who ran the aid stations brilliantly for a long period of time. The time and effort people put into helping organise the race for the benefit of a small number of runners is very much appreciated. The highlights of the race for me were arriving at each checkpoint to see one or two familiar faces with a warm greeting and a chat, it was a shame to have to leave each and every checkpoint.

In addition, thanks to everyone “back home” who sent messages, texts or tweets or who I rambled on the phone to at various points. Your support was very much appreciated and kept me going through the race. My two anecdotes from various conversations during the race were:

2013 Matt Goss Tweet

Thanks to Matt Goss for Stoutys re-tweet!

“I enjoyed the first 100 yards, I will enjoy the last 100 yards but I’ve hated the 248 miles in between”.

“I’m going to deathmarch 200 miles just to avoid a DNF, that’s just ridiculous!”

I kept saying I would never do this race again but we all know it’s just the sore feet talking at the moment. If I did ever decide to tackle this again then I would make sure this was the “A” race and I was more committed to this in terms of preparation, build up, rest and taper.

It’s quite nice to have the longest non-stop footrace in the UK on your running CV and I’m now going to enjoy a couple of weeks of rest and no running before embarking on a solid couple of months effort for the Spartathlon in September.

Hope you enjoyed the lengthy race report!