When Vicky ran the Thames Path 100!

by Vicky Luffrum

March 3rd and 4th 2012

As if running a marathon was not enough, on 12th September 2011, eight days after completing the Wye Valley “adventure” marathon, on a balmy, windy evening the first miles towards an even greater challenge were ticked off. Those running it on that evening (a tough run up Leckwith Hill to the “five bar gate”) might not have realised its significance to me.

Early March 2012 seemed so far away, well it WAS far away, not only were the straightforward (!) miles of training need to be invested week in week out but the chilling jabs of of yet another severe winter would have to be ignored if any sort of success in completing the 100 miles was to be achieved.

For any serious race planning is a pre-requisite; ensuring flexible options are part of it ….after all Christmas, New Year, let alone the chance of injury, illness or simply the unexpected could so easily interrupt the best of training plans! But on paper, my plan looked simple. As it transpired, we were blessed with a relatively mild winter but with some inevitable bitterly cold periods; the sensibility of my mileage increases, week by week combined with the balanced sessions at the gym resulted in five months training with an accumulated total of 1100miles. Throughout the period I ran five days a week, all except just two weeks before the actual race when I developed the worst cold I had had for many years. Minor niggles with knees and ligaments were attended to brilliantly in the Aspire gym, so much so that “back to back” runs were carried out regularly, the most significant being the highest mileages of thirty miles one day followed by twenty the next day. These “back to backs”, often as early as 2.30am in the morning to replicate the “feel” of running when you should be sleeping (!) have been identified as a basic requirement for ultra marathons. During the darkest days of winter it gave opportunity for practising night time running as often as possible, using head torches on local trails even for short distances..the hundred miler would be nearly eleven hours in darkness on the narrow towpath along the River Thames.

With the weekend of the race approaching, the other elements of planning began to be spread about my lounge floor, expedition like! Putting together “drop bags” with gels, electrolytes, food (yes food!!)..pasties, hot cross buns, crisps, flapjacks…change of clothing, first aid stuff.. thinking about every eventuality. These bags were dropped at strategic aid stations along the route where hot food and water was also available provided by support teams. The last drop-bag was to be at the ninety-one mile mark, one which I chose not to make and looking back, might have been my only strategic error!

As in all races the jangling of nerves is helped along by the dramatic stories of the elite. In these “ultras” there is a huge feeling of camaraderie with recognition of names from internet forums and here we were, nearly two hundred of us being primed about route diversions (how would I remember these?!) and waiting for the 10am gun!

We’re off! A false start (just for fun!)…no whizzing off “I’m in the lead” runners here. Light drizzly rain for the first forty five minutes, just the British weather making its point. Forty five minutes! It doesn’t seem long ago when forty five minutes running was at the top end of my ability!! The day then turned out to be fine with temperatures of 9c and at times feeling quite warm, what I would consider to be ideal running conditions. 

Discipline in such distance running means keeping a pace that can be maintained; in using my Garmin for the first daylight half of the race ensured that my pace kept at a steady 10.30-11.00 minute miling, this was well within my comfort zone. As I past Hampton Court Palace, with its golden gates at about twenty miles I felt that everything had physically and mentally come together.

The first marathon distance passed, at Windsor (28miles) I had the opportunity to replenish my camel-back bladder with “High 5, 4:1” recommended to me by George and Joe of Aspire, which certainly ensured adequate hydration during  long training runs and on my recent Brecon to Cardiff fifty miler. Shortly beyond Windsor and towards Cookham, in a zone of my own, I became aware of two people shouting and whistling to me from the other side of the river! Those who know of my erratic sense of direction will not be surprised to learn that this was my first of three occasions of taking the wrong route! In fairness I had simply missed a sign guiding runners over a bridge and was jogging off towards a different sunset. Damn it, an extra mile onto the total distance but again the importance of discipline, refocus and no panic. At about thirty five miles soreness in my hip-flexor joint had to be put firmly to the back of my mind, it was a niggle brought on by constant use and definitely was not going to interrupt the run. Ok when running but a bummer when re-starting after the aid station check points!

Back on track, or path, I joined two rather good looking young men; (easy to get pulled along in such a situation!) but realised that these two were 2hr 50 min marathon runners. I was on a high enjoying the whole experience, the scenery, the wildlife, running with others with the same goals but I had to check back on my pace. This was the race of my life!

Checkpoint four, a “drop bag” to open. 6.30pm. Running for eight and a half hours had passed seemingly so swiftly! Darkness. Change of clothing, but despite initial ideas about changing running shoes, advice from other runners erred me away from this. If the feet are ok then stay with the familiar. Chicken soup and ham sandwiches were handed out by the support volunteers as well as their overall help in getting things together. Who says that you don’t get your money’s worth from race entry fees?! Apprehension! Concerns about the chances of getting lost were allayed however by the brightness (170 lumens) of my head torch. The night time turned out to be even better, more focussed and exciting than running during the daytime. I set off from the aid station with two guys, Fabrice and Simon who were struggling at the time. Ticking off Henley (famous places!) at 51 miles, Reading at 58 miles (where I had changed trains on route to the event just twenty four hours earlier) and Whitchurch at 67 miles. Feeding station! Baked beans were enjoyed but repeat is a term best used in the negative here, suffice to say that I would not recommend them to anyone during a distance run!

On the outskirts of Streatley at 71 miles and at 2am on Sunday morning I began running alone; I had thought that running along pitch dark towpaths along a river would be daunting but there was company with the sound of geese on the river and I felt liberated and free of all life’s worries. It was just about putting one foot in front of the other and “being there”.

There was no wonderful sunrise to view, the night had been dry yet clouds had drifted over. At 82 miles and 6am, despite the cloud cover, the temperature dropped dramatically over the next hour and a half. With it came heavy rain, wind and eventually snow with a temperature of 1c. With the freshening wind the wind chill factor began to be cause for concern at exactly the point where the towpath became a quagmire of mud! Unable to run because of the depth of the mud and uneven surface, the chilling effect of the weather and only now able to walk allowed my body to cool down far, far too much. I learned later that this was the case with many other runners. I took a hot cup of tea at the 91 mile aid station realising that with my soaked through clothing the last nine miles was likely to be a killer. The situation was highlighted by runners who had pulled out and who were sitting, huddled with duvets wrapped around them! I had run ALL the way up until 86 miles and felt that I was on the way to completion. At 91 miles I was well on target to finish within 24hours…if only I had been able to continue to run through the mud!

Pushing on through Lower Radley at 95 miles I checked in my race number, it was now snowing heavily (if only I had had extra clothing at the 91 mile drop bag point..the bag I had decided not to use!). I was becoming even colder but mentally able to realise that I was physically approaching a dangerous condition though still continued to what was the 100 mile point (due to diversion). I turned to look behind and saw two runners approaching and made the decision that I needed medical assistance; I needed someone to use my mobile phone because I was shivering so severely I was unable to use it. One of the runners altruistically stayed with me until I was taken away by ambulance.

The total official course had been re measured at 102 miles, so in having to withdraw at this point meant that (due also to my own diversion!) I had completed a total of 103 miles in 25 hours thirty minutes.

In the local hospital I was informed that my core temperature had dropped to 34.2c and that the race had been abandoned on medical and safety advice.

Getting back home to Cardiff would not have been possible if I had not have had the support of Sian England from the Aspire Running Group. She saved my bacon!

Would I do anything like this again? You bet!!

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