Tuesday, 26 August 2014

T184 - Sleeping my way to a finish

T184 is an unsupported run along the length of the Thames from the barrier in East London to the source near Kemble in Gloucestershire. There are checkpoints every 25-30 miles where you get water. Nothing else. You start carry everything you need for potentially 4 days running, sleeping and eating.

The route
My race began with a LOT of planning. Numbers and spreadsheets are my thing so I had catalogued every piece of kit I have into categories, with weight and bulk. The idea was that I could then work out the best kit combination and the size of pack I would need. There was also a lot of information and chat on kit, etc on the t184 facebook forum, which I read and added to my notes, including the best bit of advice from the RD Shane Benzie.. It's not kit weight but kit selection that will make the difference whether you DNF or not.

The final decision was to go with a lightweight approach but with one eye on the weather. That meant I had to carry kit for a cold Saturday (the forecast was for 6c overnight) and a wet Sunday.  I’d done a couple of long runs with my Innov-8 RaceElite 24 and knew it was comfy with no rubbing and for easy access I’d bought a RaceElite 3 waist pack for phone, map & snacks.

Key kit would be for comfortable sleeping as I’ve done a lot of hiking over the years and found that I’m useless without decent rest. Pace drops, I start to make navigation errors, etc as soon as I get really tired so a decent warm set-up was essential. Due to predictions for the cold weather I went for a 4-season Sea to Summit bag at +4/-2c, a Rab Ultralight bivi and Sil Poncho / tarp to keep the rain off (and as an extra layer if it got really wet) with a simple cut-down foam roll-mat for a bit of comfort.

On the food front I decided to leave the cooking kit and freeze-dried food at home due to the higher calorie value of nuts, pepperami and chocolate. Plus I saved over 1kg and a load of space in the pack by going with a cold-food option. And it was instantly available. No stopping to faff with boiling water and waiting for food to hydrate.
Race plan. Out of the window by CP2

My race plan was a run/walk strategy for 20/5 minutes at 6/3mph. Day two would be the same but at 5/2.5mph and day three at 4/2mph. I had also planned two 8 hour sleep stops overnight to recuperate fully from the day. I wanted to treat this more as 3 days of 100k, and use the sleep break as a reward for completing that day’s task.

Kenneth Branagh giving us his
Richard III speech
On Friday morning 70-odd runners gathered at the Thames Barrier café. We collected a tracking device, make final kit checks, some of us peed, drooled and gave blood for a Kent Uni immunology study and at 10:30am set off. The initial pace felt comfortable and we quickly passed the dome, crossed under Blackwall Tunnel and jogged past Parliament. The crowds of tourists were a problem in places but a few minutes walking were going to make absolutely no difference in a race that has an 80 hour cutoff.

At CP1 I came in at just over 5 hours, a little ahead of schedule but feeling good. Seeing the sights on a running tour of London had been a great lift, and I was ready to get going on the next 26 mile section. During the day several people had met me through London and run or walked for a while, which helped to pass the time and boost morale.  

For the second section I’d been running with a group and had become unofficial group leader after telling them I knew the area well (I used to camp at Laleham while working in Chertsey a few years back). I soon proved my worth by leading us down the wrong route that resulted in a 3 mile detour, but made up for this with a water stop at the campsite with an 80’s disco and an interesting encounter with a group of slightly drunk ladies offering us wine and food. We all declined. Moses did want to go boogie, but we had other things to do.

We reached CP2 at Old Windsor around midnight. Everything was going fine but a lot slower than planned due to a lot of walking. 53 miles in and I was way behind schedule, but I was enjoying myself so much I decided to implement the Whenever Plan. As long as I was ahead of the cut-offs, I’d just run, walk or sleep whenever I felt like it. My decision was therefore to bivi down on the football pitches on the approach to Windsor for a good night’s sleep.

Saturday morning saw me back on the road at dawn after a lovely 5 hours sleep. I jogged for a couple of hours as I knew I’d been 4 hours ahead of the cut-off at CP2 so I was now behind. But with the average required pace 2.3mph I knew that with a morning of running, I could get that buffer back. I met Jamie Woods at CP3 in Henley who had droped due to blisters. Luckily so far my feet were in great condition. I was removing shoes and socks at every chance and airing them out which combined with the recovery they got while I was asleep seemed to be keeping them in tip-top condition.

Together with the Whatever Plan, I had now decided that I would use my food as a reward system, so I tucked in to the 2 pepperami that I would get at every CP, filled up with water and moved on up the river.

Throughout the day I was catching up to runners and jogging with them for a while, as many had just grabbed the odd hour of sleep so my 5 hours had put me well behind. On the approach to the 100 mile point at Streatley I was becoming increasingly glad of my decision to take these proper sleep breaks as I noticed that many were looking extremely tired and having difficulty keeping a conversation going. Approaching CP4 at Streatley I also met a Kate Hayden and heard that a good mate Chris Edmonds had dropped earlier due to shin splints, a recurring problem and one that he needs to get properly sorted! (hint)

Streatley became a graveyard. Runner after runner collapsed in a chair and handed in their number. Maybe having reached 100 miles they felt happy they’d done enough, maybe it was the realisation there were still 84 miles and two more days ahead, but the field slimmed considerably. Another to exit from the race here was Tom Foreman, with whom I’d run the PoS last year. He’d decided that running the race was too easy and started swimming upstream a mile or so back.
Selfie while runners fight over a pie

Off again on the path and I was now on sections I was unfamiliar with. Well, the path at least. I’d rowed the Thames in a “three men in a boat” skiff a few years ago with my wife, so was familiar with the towns, bridges and pubs. Unfortunately the latter were well out-of-bounds so I had to march past with my eyes averted to the beer and food being served. To be honest it didn’t bother me. That was a different world now, I had a race to complete.

It was also around this time that I began to realise people smelled of soap and laundry detergent. Everyone I passed on the path had a distinct “just washed” smell. I’m sure the same applied in reverse as I’d been two days and nights as a soap dodger and the baseball cap was beginning to crawl away when I put it down.

I carried on about 6 miles past Streatley and found a lovely road bridge to sleep under. I the night fisherman further up the bank probably thought I was homeless but thankfully he didn’t offer me any food, and by the time I woke and set off he’d gone.
130 miles rolled around at Oxford and I was still feeling good. No blisters, the nutrition was working well and thanks to a load of sleep I was running well, taking photos and generally enjoying the experience. By now I had settled into a routine of run/walk for the morning marathon, then walking the afternoon. The pattern worked fine and I was so relaxed I was almost in a trance at points. I can see what these Sri Chinmoy guys are on to.

Over the flat farmland coming in to CP6 I could hear rock music. As I got closer it appeared to be a bad cover band. I couldn’t remember hearing of a festival in the local area and was wondering what it was. Chris came out to guide me in and said the pub opposite had a live band. Great. I was planning to sleep at this CP and they have Disaster Area playing.

Luckily to boost my spirits Chris and Nikki Mills turned up to give me some abuse and drink coffee in front of me. Anna Buckingham also dropped in, so we had a shouted conversation for an hour or so. The band actually stopped 30 mins after I got there but Chris talks so much find yourself shouting just to get a word in edgeways.

To give the CP staff a rest I ambled down the road half a mile for another snooze under my tarp/poncho at midnight as I knew rain was due. I heard a couple of guys hike past at 1am and shouted a greeting from under my shelter. Unphased they just shouted back “Is that Cranswick?” - I might have been getting a reputation for sleeping.

Shillingford Bridge early on Sunday

As this was the last day I was up at 4am in full waterproofs for a trudge through the dark till dawn. Although the next checkpoint and finish were only 13 and 16 miles apart respectively, these felt like the longest stages of the race. The rain didn’t help as for the first time in the race I could do nothing to prevent wet feet. The one thing I would change is having a set of sealskins in the pack for a bit more comfort in the rain as for once my feet started to deteriorate. Not a problem on the last day but had it been wet throughout I’d have been suffering.

I’d been leapfrogging Nina Smith for a couple of days and we’d run together for quite a while. She’s a great person to run with as she’s amazingly positive and has run pretty much everything several times. Plus she’s a tough as nails and will drag you through the low points. We hiked in to CP7 at 168 miles and once again Chris Edmonds was there to walk us in. There was a packet of open biscuits on the table which unthinkingly I reached towards before remembering that this was unsupported and reverted to the usual 2 Pepperami and a handful of nuts. The CP volunteers were cruelly offering around a box of crisps amongst themselves so in retaliation I left them a present of my old wet socks as I changed into a dry pair for the last 16 miles.

Andrew Jordan came round to say hi and lend some welcome moral support, and I did the usual silly pose for the camera as he took a “leaving for the last stage” picture. As we got going we were informed that the back-marker James Penson was powering so we decided to try to up the pace, not because we were worried about position but more that we wanted a comfortable buffer on the cut-offs and realised we were slowing considerably.

Erm...
Through the endless lakes towards Kemble I was trying to keep up the pace, but we kept slipping back to 2-3 mph. We weren’t looking for a power finish, just to speed up a bit so we could get the suffering over sooner. As James powered past I asked Nina if we should tag on the back of his zippy pace, she saw I was eager to get a move on and kindly said she’d catch up. Which she did. Due to my excellent navigation we found ourselves going wrong and after his friend in Australia called to say we’d gone off-route and had to backtrack about half a mile, where we met Nina again who was about to make the same error we’d just made.

Eager to get this over with we marched up the last hill, over the railway tracks and broke into a jog as we came towards the final gate. You could sense the anticipation as Nina put in a burst of speed to get her to the gate first, with me tracking and James keeping close. At the bell (sorry, gate), we were jostling for position and I kicked past Nina. I asked “are we going for it”, she agreed so I gave it the beans.

After 183.8 miles and 76 hours I actually managed something resembling a sprint.

Then something clicked in my head.

This was fun but we’d run this together. Not just me, Nina and James. But all the people I’d run with. All the people I’d talked to, bantered with on Facebook and the 70 nutcases that queued to start the race on Friday morning with no idea what was about to unfold.

I stopped. We had to go in together.

I waited for James about 30 meters from the stone. He stopped and we made a gap for Nina to grab our hands as we ran it in together and collapsed on the stone. Finished.


For those that took up this epic challenge I have a feeling.. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CqA5IJPEONY