Thames Path 100 – A Race Report

8 May 2021

For the uninitiated, the Centurion Thames Path 100 is a 100 mile footrace along the Thames, from Richmond in London, to Oxford. The route follows the Thames for the vast majority of the course, with a few minor diversions away from the river. This also means it’s flat, very flat. Not entirely flat, as the bridges have some elevation, and there is one short, hilly section around 68 miles. But other than that: flat. Which is a novelty in ultra world, and one that presents a different challenge. Don’t be lulled here into a false sense of security, thinking it’s easy because it’s flat. Repeat after me “there’s no such thing as an easy hundred” Faster than an average hilly course, yes, but the flatness creates extra challenges, I was crying out at some points for a Southease, or a Detling-esque section to provide some variation, more of this later…

Pre-race stuff: Training had been good. I’d taken part in the virtual Spine in Jan, and the Centurion virtual Double Slam in Feb-Mar, so my Jan-Apr mileage was averaging a little under 300 miles per month, making it the most consistent high volume training block I’ve ever done. I’d upped my estimate of what I was capable of doing at TP100, I was looking for a sub-20 finish here, which would have seemed inconceivable just a few years ago, but now seemed within reach, with the tantalising possibility of a sub-19 if the planets aligned and the wind was behind me. This was my first attempt at TP100, but I knew a bit about it, having chatted to runners at other events, and read up on plenty of online race reports to get a feel for what I was in for.

I’d had to change accommodation/travel plans a little way out from race weekend. Original plan was to stay in Richmond Travelodge the night before, then get a hotel in Oxford afterwards. Unfortunately hotels were still closed to leisure travel (pesky Covid) but self-contained accommodation was a goer, so I booked an AirBnB in Oxford for Friday to Monday. I chose a place just a few minutes walk from the finishing area to make the post-race experience as easy as possible, and also easy to get back to collect drop bags the following morning.

This just left the question of how to get from Oxford to the start line on the Saturday morning. My original plan was to get the train, but it would have meant getting the first train out of oxford at 03:55, with 2 changes and a bus replacement for part of the journey. Fuck that. Now I’m no train snob, I’m more than happy to travel by train, but this wasn’t going to work, I needed a lower hassle way to get to Richmond, so I booked a taxi. The taxi wasn’t cheap, but it was about £35 more than the train (plus cab to station in the morning) would have cost, so when I worked out that for £35 I was buying myself an easy morning with 2 hours extra in bed, it was clear that it was money well spent.

Friday evening I arrived at the AirBnB and settled in, then took a walk to the Queens College Recreation ground, so that I’d know exactly the route to get back after the race. Seeing the finishing field got the excitement going for the race weekend ahead. I had an early dinner of vegan burritos and Kettle Chips (classy), and got into bed for 8pm, knowing the night before an ultra is rarely the best of sleeps. I had a fairly typical pre-race dream where I found myself at a checkpoint working out timings, and that I was right on the cusp of the cut-off.

After a fairly fitful night, the alarm went off at 04:00. Plenty of time for breakfast and final kit check. Breakfast was a porridge pot, coffee and a banana. The taxi arrived bang on the dot of 05:30 (I can totally recommend Blackberry Cars for a long distance cab journey) and we were off. I was so grateful to be sat inside a warm, comfy Merc rather than going by train and hanging about on wet windy platforms for connections…

A note about the weather. All week I’d been obsessively checking the weather, as is standard practise for race week. The race briefing issued via Youtube on Wed had referred to some pretty extreme rain and wind. James Elson reassuringly told us that the forecast may improve, before adding “It may also get worse” Fuck. Running all day and night in the pissing rain and howling wind is no fun at all, so it was with relief, that the forecast gradually improved throughout the week. Not much though, but rather than torrential rain all day, it was now only due to rain in the morning, with the wind also over 40mph for only a few hours later, rather than all day.

Traffic was light, so we made it to Richmond Town Hall in an hour, 30 mins earlier than planned, and before the 07:00 start time. It was a rolling start, due to Covid regs, with runners starting from 07:00 through to 09:30. I’d planned on a 07:30 start, but I wasn’t going to wait around in the rain for an hour, so decided to go as soon as I was able to.

At the town hall, it was a pretty efficient system for dropping drop and finish line bags and collecting the trackers that are a new feature for 2021. Then a short wait outside until it was time to go.

I was about the tenth runner to leave, just after 07:00. It’s still a little weird to not have the usual buzz of the start line, but I don’t mind a rolling start at all. It’s less stress on race morning as you’re not aiming for a set time, and there’s no crowding or bunching in the early miles. You can go at your own pace, rather than carried along/held up by those around you.

It was raining pretty hard, so waterproof jacket and gloves were on, but the temperature was good. Early miles along the river passed uneventfully, on target pace pretty effortlessly. I had to consciously slow myself a few times, reminding myself there was a long way to go.

The first of many (20ish?) river crossings came about 5 miles in, just before Hampton Court. The path was quiet, with runners already spread out, a few dog walkers, and several groups of rowers on the river. It wasn’t busy, but was odd to be running a long ultra in a built up area. This also meant it was harder to find an appropriate spot when the first loo stop was needed. Number 1 only, so it wasn’t long before a suitable bush cropped up.

I’d prepared a sheet with split times for a 19 and 21 hour finish, and was comfortably inside the 19 hour splits when I got to the first CP at 10 miles, having averaged a little under 9 mins per mile for the first stretch. The aim was to stick to the 19 hours splits for as long as it felt comfortable, and back off if I needed to. A quick stop at the CP to refill drinks and grab a malt loaf bar. This was the only CP I had to wait at, whilst the runner in front fumbled with his bottles, but this was only a minute or so, so not a problem. (Always loosen the lids of your soft flasks before arriving at the CP, they’re a fucker when you have sanitiser all over your hands. Same for adding in your drinks powder. Do this before the CP, so all you’re doing while you’re there is adding the fluid, not faffing about)

From Walton, the next CP was Wraysbury, at around 22.5 miles. I kept a similar pace for this section. I put my headphones on shortly after leaving Walton CP and kept them on for the vast majority of the rest of the race, which is unusual for me, but as the field is so spread out, you can be alone for hours at a time. Not something that bothers me, as long as I can have some music along the way. Miles 14/15ish were through Shepperton, which was the most sparsely marked section of the course, and I was very grateful to have the GPX on my watch. I’d have got worried about being lost otherwise. I hadn’t expected to need to think much about navigation on this race, but there were many points throughout where the Thames Path takes a weird little turn into an alley, through a churchyard, a housing estate, or bizarrely through some odd deserted car park on the edge of (I think) Staines. Don’t take nav for granted on this one, have your wits about you, or you can easily end up on the wrong side of the river having missed a bridge, or an alley.

I think it was just after Shepperton that there were some seriously large houses on the opposite banks, there’s clearly some big money in this area. For a minute I was jealous of the massive houses on the river bank with the nice gardens and the flash cars. But then I thought about how privileged I am to be able to do these races, not just in a wanky gratitude way (but yeah that too) but also that these are not cheap endeavours. The race place for me was a freebie from volunteering last year, but the whole weekend still cost more than many people would be able to afford on a weekend, so by any measure, I am indeed privileged.

I had to stop a couple times along here somewhere as my race number was nearly falling off. The pins had ripped through to the edge of the number and it was flapping loose, I think the heavy rain was making it soggy and more prone to tearing. This was an annoyance, as at this rate there’d be nothing left of the number to pin on to my shorts. Fortunately after a few times, the number held. Around this time, a few hours in, the rain thankfully calmed down.

The next section (Wraysbury 22.5 to Dorney 31) is a bit of a blank, nothing much stands out other than a few bits. Passing Windsor Castle. And … um, that’s it. Oh maybe it was along here that there was a group of girls swimming on the river. They were screaming from the cold as they jumped in. I told them they were lunatics. They asked what I was doing, and called me the same.

I remember passing the marathon mark at just over 4 hours, and thinking back to the first occasion I ran a sub-4 marathon, which was a monumental effort at the time. But on this day I realised that other than stopping briefly at CPs and a couple of trail wees, I’d been running since Richmond. Usually in an ultra there are hills to force a change of pace, but there was none of that here, so I decided that I’d better start taking a walk break every now and again, just to give the leg muscles a bit of variety. Better to start taking walk breaks before you actually need to, was my thinking.

The Dorney CP was just before you get to Dorney Lake of Olympic 2012 fame. I skipped past this CP, and could see that there was some kind of an event on at Dorney Lake. Triathlon maybe. Weirdos.

30 miles in is always a funny (as in strange) point of a hundred miler for me. You’ve run far enough that you’re starting to feel it, and there’s still fucking loads of miles to go. It’s way too far away to even think about the finish, it’s just a case of moving on forwards. I usually break a hundred into thirds. First third: don’t do anything daft. Middle third: Just keep going. Final third: now you can think about the finish, don’t be a wimp. And now I was bout in the middle section, just keep going, keep it steady.

Another 8 miles or so to Cookham, the next CP, which was just a quick stop for drinks again, I was carrying just about the right amount of food to get me to my drop bag at Henley. I’d been eating well so far, around 250 calories per hour, and I’d been pretty good at remembering what to eat and when. I find it gets harder to keep on top of this the further into the race you get, but all was good so far.

After Cookham, the course went through Bourne End. I used to know someone from Bourne End, he claimed it was close to Henley. Liar, it was fucking ages to get to Henley. Bourne End was actually closer to Slough, but that doesn’t sound so good does it. So I slowed a bit from here. I’d typically been doing 09:xx miles, after about mile 40 this edged over 10 mins per mile, still on my sub-19 hours splits, but losing a bit of the cushion I’d built. Not anything to worry about, remembering that sub-20 was really the aim here.

There was one of those weird bits through alleys in Marlow, then back on the river path. There was a CP at Hurley at 45 miles, but I skipped this one. So I found myself approaching the 50 mile mark, feeling better at 50% of the way through a hundred miler than I have done before, and also in the weird position where I was about to best my 50 mile PB by a few minutes. I very hoped that this wasn’t a reckless position to be in, I’m pretty sure you shouldn’t be setting a PB in the first half of a race, but I was feeling OK, not overly exerted, so I wasn’t too fussed about it. I was actually feeling very positive at this stage, still feeling strong at the half way mark, having managed the effort levels well so far, and doing well on eating and drinking (or in runner speak: nutrition and hydration).

I passed the 50 mile point in 08:07:19. 3 mins faster than my 50 mile PB, which being SDW50 is actually about 49 miles, so a good effort so far. I then took a while to walk, mainly as the approach to Henley-on-Thames is heading South, and at this stage that was right into a strong headwind, so it seemed pointless expending the extra effort for very little extra speed. There was about 2 miles of this, and it was the first stage it felt like hard going, I’m pretty sure this was down to the headwind, rather than the preceding 50 miles!

With just over 52 miles on the clock, the Henley CP arrived. This was the first of 2 drop bag locations, the second being at Goring 20 miles down the road. As I came into the CP, Chris Mills, who looks after the timing and tracking systems, asked to check my tracker as it had apparently been pinging some very odd locations. Tracker checked, I moved on to the CP, and before I’d even arrived, they had my drop bag out and waiting on a chair for me, I guess this is the advantage of having trackers, the CP staff can see who’s on the way in. I changed into my trail shoes (Altra Olympus 4), having been wearing road shoes (Altra Paradigm 5) so far, knowing that the further you get towards Oxford, the more traily it gets. Road shoes had done me fine so far, but fucking hell was I glad of trail shoes in some of the later stages. I also changed from a T shirt to a long sleeve T, which felt lovely and fresh for all of about 5 minutes, and dumped my baseball cap and shades here, I wasn’t going to need these, so no point in carrying them.

From here it was 20 miles to Goring, where drop bag 2 was, so it was a relatively short stretch, and I didn’t need to take too much with me to keep me going to Goring which I expected would take around 4 hours, due to slowing in pace, and the ‘hilliest’ section of the course.

Until this point I’d mainly been eating bars and gels. Bars were a mix of Clif, Nakd, Nine and Soreen. All tried and tested ultra food, but can get a little dull. So I’d packed myself a couple of treats for drop bag 1. A peanut butter and jam wrap, and an avocado and houmous cob (or roll, if you’re not from the Midlands). The avo and houmous cob was inspired by Damian Hall, who used this for food on his record breaking Pennine Way run in summer 2020. If it’s good enough for him… And I figured that the mix of protein, fat and carbs, and an entirely different taste from anything else I’d had in the day, would be an appetising combination. And it was, I ate the whole thing whilst walking out of the CP. (The PBJ wrap though, stayed in my pack until Oxford).

A note on checkpoints. One of my aims for the day was spend less time at checkpoints. On all 3 previous hundred milers, my stoppage time comes to around 100 minutes on each of them, with only a few minutes variation, so I wanted to reduce this, as in theory it’s an easy way to shave time off the finish time. I’ve stopped for 20-30 mins at the halfway point, or other major checkpoints on other races, and was keen to spend a max of 10 mins at any given CP today, which I achieved, and I was out of Henley in 10 mins.

Leaving Henley, I was walking and eating for the first half a mile, then picked up the pace again, about 10:30-11:00 per mile from here to Reading, so slowing but still respectable, and still just about on splits for sub-19, but not feeling too precious if this started to slip.

The Reading CP arrived around mile 59, which seemed pretty quick after Henley, I had a quick stop here to refill drinks as it was another 9 miles to Pangbourne. I could probably have got by without stopping here, it was an indoor checkpoint, and was one of the slower ‘quick’ stops as I needed to put on shoe covers and follow a one way system around the building.

I’d read stories online of the Reading section being potentially unpleasant due to drunk civilians. But I predicted that I’d be fine due to 1) time of day: better to pass through here around 18:00 when it was light and before pub closing time 2) weather: less likely for people to be out than on a bright sunny evening 3) Covid: pubs not fully open yet. And it was fine, there were group out but no one giving any hassle, in fact they all virtually ignored the procession of slightly weary looking runners making their way along the riverside path.

A certain section looked familiar to me, and I couldn’t place it, then it twigged. It was the edge of the Rivermead site, home to Reading festival which I attended in 1998 and 2001, and the Womad Festival (1994 and 1995). I remembered lazing here on a sunny morning after the night before at Womad one year. We’d snuck in having fashioned some festival wristbands out of pink bin liners and chewing gum wrappers. Festival security was little more lax in the mid-90s! I recalled that the trees somehow appeared slug like in my ‘refreshed’ state that morning. Funny, I’d not thought of that morning with the mollusc trees for about 25 years. That recollection kept me amused as I ticked away the miles.

It was just after Reading that I chatted to Ally from Aberdeenshire, who was getting over raging with himself for missing a turn and adding on about 4 extra miles. Still, he was doing well as he’d started after me, and run further than me, after a few mins chatting, he went on ahead, and I made a mental note to really pay attention to navigation, I remember adding on 2 miles at NDW100 and I didn’t need to do that again.

A set of steps over a railway bridge, and another of those weird little diversions through a housing estate for a mile or so, then it was back on the river path, and I entered the final third (distance wise anyway) of the race. It felt good to be entering the next phase, knowing that the vast majority of the miles and the hours were behind me. Plenty of time left, and barring any catastrophic incidents, a finish, and a sub-20, was looking like it was on the cards.

I skipped through Pangbourne CP, about 68 miles, then came the hilliest section of the day. This would be nothing to write home about if it was on NDW, but here it stood out so much compared with the rest of the course, and it was a nice change to have some ups and some downs. There was a particularly enjoyable downhill stretch through some trees before heading into Goring for the next CP, which came only about 4 miles after the last one, so it really felt like I was making quick progress here. In reality, pace was slowing a little, but I was still averaging somewhere around 11:00 a mile, so good progress, and bang on track for the 19 hour finish, but definitely starting to feel the miles in my legs now, so I fully expected the sub-19 to start slipping away, but I was OK with that.

Goring was the location of the second drop bag. I picked out a gilet as I didn’t want to get caught in the cold. Some years it can get extremely cold along the final stretch of the course overnight, but today had been fairly mild, so I wasn’t expecting it to get too bad, but the wind was getting up occasionally, so I decided to take the gilet in case anyway. Here I was starting to lose track of food intake, and forgetting (or couldn’t be bothered) to eat. I had another avo and houmous cob in my drop bag, but looked at it and left it in the bag, this was a mistake, I should have forced it down. I lost a few mins here too with excessive faffing with drop bag. I’d certainly kept the contents of the bag less than on previous races, but there was still stuff in here that wasn’t really necessary, so I can still get better at this.

I was selected for a random kit check at Goring too. Since there’s no main registration due to the Covid rules, there’s no pre-race kit check, so a certain number of runners passing each checkpoint are randomly checked. The volunteer was so apologetic as he asked me, but it was fine, I’ve had to do the same whilst volunteering, and it really takes no extra time. So after showing my gloves, base layer and something else that I can’t remember, I headed out from Goring, having spent about 10 mins again the CP.

A mile or two out of Goring, and I had one of those real highs as I ran through the field and the daylight was fading. I was looking forward to nightfall as it would provide a little variety, and it was a sign of forward progress. An acid techno banger from the 90s (Pump panel – Ego Acid) was on the playlist at this time, and I felt like a total machine, which I made the most of, knowing these things never last. Amazed at the power I felt 74 miles into the race, I had a rush, of the kind not felt since a long time ago, in a galaxy far far away. Enjoy the highs, ride out the lows, as neither of them last for long. Solid advice for life as well as ultras.

The course took me under a railway bridge, and then into what was the muddiest, slippiest, slidiest bit I’d come across so far. I stopped here to get my headtorch out of my pack, it didn’t need to go on yet, but it wasn’t going to be long. I was quite impressed at having got to nearly 80 miles before nightfall. Here though, as well as the mud, was a section that was midgey as fuck. Millions of the little beasts swarming and getting in my face. Nowhere near as bad as the highland midge that I’ve encountered a few times on camping missions north of the wall, but still annoying.

So swatting away midges, and slipping a little on the mud, it got dark enough to need the head torch, and before I knew it, I was at the Wallingford CP, mile 78. A quick coffee here (I had some Nescafe Oat Latte sticks with me) and grabbed a couple of gels, and off I went, knowing that the next stretch to Clifton Hampden was often described as a real tough slog.

From race reports I’d read, it was a long long way though never-ending fields to Clifton Hampden. It did feel long, much longer than the advertised 7.5 miles (it’s nearer 8.5) but wasn’t so bad, I was still moving quite well here, averaging around 11:30 per mile. Not fast at all, but respectable for me at this stage in the game. And whilst my legs were tired, they didn’t feel much more so than they did at mile 30 about a million years ago. There were a few river crossings here, some across weirs, where you could really feel the power of the water as it rushed below, and the wind felt strong on these too.

Through the field, at times the trail wasn’t easy to make out from the rest of the field, and there was a lot (I mean a LOT) of cow shit, many many gates to get through, which seemed to get progressively harder to work out how to open them, though I’m fairly certain that was due to my decreasing brain power, rather than then increasing complexity of the gates, and one field with fucking massive giant (well they seemed big at the time) cows. After what seemed like forever, but in reality was about an hour and 3 quarters from Wallingford, I reached the Clifton Hampden CP.

The CP wasn’t in the usual location of the village hall, as this had been turned into a vaccination centre, so it was in the meadow nearer to the trail. I mentioned to the volunteer that I’d been manning this CP last year, and felt bad for her being outside in the wind today, she told me she’d dropped from the race here last year, and I remember the conversations I’d had with her that night to try to get her back out the door and back on the trail. Which she did, but then came back after a while, but I remember thinking how courageous she was to even have a go at it. I had another oat milk latte here, and then carried on.

And suddenly, just like that, everything was so much harder…

From Wallingford to Clifton Hampden, I was doing about 11:30 per mile. The next stretch to Abingdon I was averaging about 14:00, mainly walking, with a few short jogs every now and again. I think the stop at the CP broke my rhythm. It wasn’t like I was suddenly feeling more tired, I just had a new default mode, and that was walking rather than a slow run. And I couldn’t be arsed to change it. Fuck it, I thought, I’ll just walk it in from here. On reflection, it’s pretty clear to me that that this was a ‘low mood, need food’ type situation, but I couldn’t see it for the mental fog, so I just kept on traipsing along. The state of the trail certainly didn’t help, it was getting muddier and slippier. Woe betide anyone who was still in road shoes.

Looking back, all I had to do was to shovel in some food. I’d not had loads since Goring, a few gels only, so I’m fairly certain that if I’d have been on top of my food intake, I’d have been feeling better, and therefore more motivated to move faster. I decided to get in some quick calories and had another gel, a caffeine pill, and forced myself to up the pace a little. This did get me out of my slump a bit, and it wasn’t too long before reaching the penultimate CP at Abingdon, mile 92. 2 cups of Coke and I was out of there. I don’t think I was getting any faster, but I was definitely feeling a little better, helped by knowing that I was now counting down the miles in single digits.

I motivated myself to have a little jog every now again again, even if by now I was unable to sustain it for very long. I’d count to hundred then walk for a bit. I reasoned that by doing this I’d shave a little time, and now the main driver wasn’t finishing in a certain time, it was just about finishing sooner for the sake of being done and able to stop. Survival rather than glory. During these last 10-15 miles, I was thinking to myself that I’d have rather had a Southease style beast of a hill, or a Detling-esque shitshow of steps to at least provide some variation. But then again, I’m sure I’d have moaned to myself about that too…

By now the trail was often more puddle than trail, more slip than solid, and whilst I cursed it out loud many a time, it did at least provide something to focus on. And gradually the final CP at Lower Radley (95.5) came into view.

2 cups of Coke guzzled here, and then onto the final stretch. 4.5 miles to go. I was almost 18 and a half hours in, so the sub-19 was out of reach, no way I was going to romp home in 8 minute miles at this late stage in the game, but I was all but guaranteed a sub-20.

A couple of miles from the end, the trail changed from muddy track to riverside path, and I managed a run on and off for the final 2 miles. I’d been out for a walk along the final bit of the course on the Friday evening, which now seemed like a different lifetime, so I knew that once the boathouses came into view on the opposite bank, it was only a few hundred meters to the turn off the path into the finishing area.

And sure enough, eventually the lights of the finishing field, and the hallowed ‘turn left for the finish’ sign appeared, and then, and then…

Done. Over the line in 19:33:02.

The look on my face in the finish photo says it all, it had been a bit of a fucking battle over those last few hours.

I didn’t hang about at the finish, accommodation was 5 mins walk away, so after a quick chat and a thank you to the volunteers, I was off. It was a strange experience being showered and in bed within 30 mins of finishing a race.

Post race reflections: I was very pleased with the result, 3.5 hours off my previous 100 mile PB, and a 50 mile PB along the way too. And more than the time, my aim had been to manage my effort, and keep on top of food. A mixed result here. Up until about 88 miles I was doing fine, after that it was a beast. Food intake from mile 70 was lacking, and I think this was the cause of the problem later on, so this is a definite area to focus on for next time. It’s the best I’ve done on food in a 100, but still clearly some room for improvement.

Another aim was to keep stoppage time down, looking for a significant reduction from the usual 100 mins. My stats from my Garmin show that I took 30 mins off this, so that’s a good result, and I can still do more on this front by keeping stuff in my pack and drop bags to a minimum.

So all in all, good progress, the closest I’ve got to getting it right on a 100 miler, with some learning points for next time. I reckon that with a few improvements a sub-19 on this course is definitely on. And in the shorter term: 3 months to NDW100…

Kit. Shoes: Paradigm 5 until Henley, then Olympus 4. Injinji socks, with plenty of SNB applied beforehand meant I avoided any blisters. Ronhill Twin short, only minor chafage but nothing too bad. Pack was UD Mountain Vest 4, I’ve used this for 3 100s and it’s always done fine. Watch was Garmin Fenix 6X Pro, which I’d bought a few weeks before. At the end of the race, with HRM, GPS and nav on since the start, it was at 53% battery. I’d have had to charge the Fenix 5X halfway, so very happy with the 6X Pro.

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