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The Time I Ran the River Thames - Part 1

· challenge,ultrarunning,sportforafrica,thamespath,sportfordevelopment

In September 2019, I attempted to run the entire length of the Thames Path in five days. The trail runs from the source of the River Thames in Kemble, Gloucestershire to the Thames Barrier in Charlton, London. An estimated distance of 184 miles.

The 'why?' you're probably now pondering was to promote awareness of the mission of Sport for Africa and to raise funds for the initial 'Seeds for Sport' pilot. I hope this initiative will eventually create a sustainable funding model for sport for development projects in Africa and beyond.

WEDNESDAY 18TH SEPTEMBER 2019

One of the first things to mention is how even beginning this 'solo' challenge would not have been possible without the kindness of others. I had made a plea to friends prior to the start of the run mentioning that, as it was self-supported and on an extremely limited budget, I may need some assistance with getting to & from certain points as well as help with overnight stays along the way. I was touched by the number of friends, old and new, who came forward to offer their support.

However, with just over a day to go, I still had a few worrying gaps in the itinerary. Of primary concern was the fact that I hadn't managed to find a way to get from my base in the Democratic People's Republic of Wokingham (a.k.a 'Wokingham') to the start in Kemble, some sixty-five miles away. I had pencilled in a complex drive/abandon car/train/hike combo until I was relieved to receive a message from Claire, a work colleague from over twenty years ago, kindly offering to pick me up from Didcot and drop me at the source.

So it all started at a chilly Reading station at 07.00, carrying a worryingly heavy Bergen and waiting for a train to Didcot Parkway. I met Claire and we made for the Cotswolds, eventually reaching the approximate area of the source. I soon realised the comments I'd read about it not being particularly easy to find or access were very true. After twenty minutes or so driving around to see if we could find somewhere to park nearby, we realised there wasn't anywhere. We abandoned the car in a layby and jumped onto a footpath that led us through three fields, eventually spotting the stone & sign marking the source on the far sign of a field.

After taking a couple of photos as evidence, I bid farewell to Claire and set off at 09.40, slightly later than planned. There is no river to follow at this stage so I keep an eye out for the black acorn signs that mark the Thames Path trail. I slowly build up to a jog in the long, dewy grass, enjoying having this remote rural location all to myself and the sounds of wildlife as I pass. I notice that the path begins to run alongside a dry river bed and figure that I'm now tracking the river. It's five miles and an hour before I see another living soul. The river eventually comes to life and I follow it's trail, moving through many fields and gates. After six miles I reach the giant Cotswold Water Park. It's starting to get a little warm when out in the open and I pass through a welcome cool shaded path as I approach Ashton Keynes. I then make my first major wrong turn, becoming utterly lost at Cleveland Lakes Nature Reserve where a closure and diversion is in effect but it's not clear how to pick up the Thames Path. I travel away from the river in the wrong direction for half a mile and reach a main road where I'm informed by a friendly birder that a large section of the reserve has been closed for filming "some Egyptian epic apparently". I'm not sure how a lake near Swindon doubles up as ancient Egypt but hey, what do I know?

I correct my path and find the trail again, continuing through Cricklade, Castle Eaton and Lechlade, moving past twenty-six miles for the day. The heat is rising and I'm increasing my water intake, eventually running out in the middle of nowhere. After an hour without water I'm beginning to worry but find a standpipe at one of the beautifully kept rural locks along the river and fill up my reservoir. The afternoon draws on as I trudge through field after field and gate after gate, keeping a very conservative pace as I know I have a huge day tomorrow. I start to fatigue and struggle to turn my legs over as I pass thirty miles and the sun begins to fade. I decide to stop at a pub for a large sugar-loaded caffeinated drink which will hopefully trick my body into continuing for the last hour or so of daylight. I'm still running past 7pm as darkness begins to fall and I reduce my target to just reaching forty miles for the day. As I near the Rose Revived pub in Newbridge, I'm glad to see Mark, an old running friend from my days in this part of the world who has kindly offered to put me up for the night. I decide to call it a day and walk to the pub car park, just beyond the forty mile mark and falling a couple of miles short of my target.

By the time I've showered, there's just enough time for a pub dinner and a few hours sleep before an early start on Thursday.

Day 1 - Target Mileage: 42.5

Day 1 - Actual Mileage: 40.3

Where it all begins. The stone and signpost at the edge of a field near Kemble, Gloucestershire, marking the source of the River Thames and the beginning of the Thames Path

THURSDAY 19TH SEPTEMBER 2019

Thursday was always going to be the biggie. The aim was to break the back of the mileage on the second day and make it to halfway before my body & mind could figure out what the blazes was going on. Falling short the previous day meant a target mileage of 52 miles - a double-marathon day. I start early at 07.30 to give me the best chance of making it to Tilehurst (Reading) before darkness. I pass through the pub garden I'd stopped at the previous evening and it takes me a few miles of walk/run to get rid of my muscle stiffness and loosen up. The surroundings are stunning, it's a distinctly cool morning, a mist sits on the river and the grass underfoot is wet, soaking my feet. I pass through tranquil fields with only sheep and the occasional lone rambler as company, pressing toward Oxford in good spirits. I smile as I reach familiar sites from my old Sunday long run routes, passing Godstow Abbey & Lock and the marvellous Perch pub at Binsey before I reach Oxford after fifteen miles and almost three hours. I briefly pause for some coffee, cake and kindness (thanks Eleonora!) and leave with the weight of the remaining miles weighing on my mind. I get back into a rhythm, passing Christchurch Meadows & the famous boathouses on the opposite side of the river, heading out into the countryside south of Oxford. As I hit Sandford-on-Thames and eighteen miles, I pick up an old running buddy from Uganda - Andy Teale. He's the only person daft enough to volunteer to join me for some heavy mileage (and actually turn up) and he's already a legend as he offers to take some of the weight out of my Bergen. My neck and shoulders rejoice running with a lighter pack and I lose concentration in the delirium, managing to get us lost a few minutes after near Radley, missing the signage behind a parked vehicle and making an unplanned detour.

It's a welcome change to have some company after running alone for the first day and a half and it takes my mind away from the size of the remaining task. We steadily work our way through the narrow single-track dirt paths that track the river through fields & gates, briefly heading west again to pass through the riverside town of Abingdon. I'm halfway for the day, just a Marathon to go!

We head south-east to Shillingford. It's starting to get hot and we're both cooking a little as we move through a long series of open fields. Keen to find some shade, we stop for a break and large sugar-loaded caffeinated drink at a riverside pub. We continue past Wallingford, I bid farewell to Teale a few miles later as we approach Cholsey train station after forty miles, a solid twenty-two mile shift for him. I continue alone to Moulsford where the route diverts away from the river alongside a main road, I begin to notice my fatigue and the increasing niggles now that I'm alone with my thoughts again. As I return toward the riverside, I duck into the Beetle & Wedge pub where I order another sugar-loaded caffeinated drink and have a chat with the lovely Sue who proceeds to pay for my drink and gives me a fiver toward the fund. Shortly after, I'm rejoined by Teale who has run from Cholsey with the stuff I'd left in his bag. My brain is absolute mush by this point. He stays with me until we reach Goring and forty-five miles. This time he really is going and as I despondently replace the weight in my bag, he heads off to Goring & Streatley train station (with an unplanned trail marathon under his belt).

Pangbourne, Mapledurham, Tilehurst. I just need to hit those three and I'm done. The trail moves into woodland as I near Pangbourne and I'm briefly joined by a friendly couple out on their evening run. Our brief chat takes my mind off my growing fatigue and discomfort until Rob explains there's a nasty rise ahead - just what I need. True to his word, between forty-seven & forty-eight miles there's quite the unwanted climb above the river. I decide it's best to walk this before taking a deep breath and breaking into a run again once I hit the flat. I reach Pangbourne Meadows, my head torch on by now as it's dark. As I pass the boats moored up for the night, I can hear music and see the owners preparing their evening meals. I consider asking if they wouldn't mind a surprise lodger. I know I'm getting close to the train station but the river has disappeared and I'm now being lead through a housing estate in the dark... And then it appears on my left, bathed in bright light, a choir sings* - the magical** Tilehurst Train Station.

* I mean, in the cold light of day, I'm not so sure about the choir bit

** The station is not particularly magical.

My joy dissipates shortly after when I discover that there is a broken down train on the line and I have to wait for 40 minutes for the service to restart. This is unfortunately more than enough time for my body to start complaining about all the things I've been purposely ignoring all day, including a worrying development in my left knee. This is not a thought process I'm keen to go through with over ninety miles and three more days to go so I select some appropriately loud, aggressive music to drown out the complaints ('Jilted Generation' by The Prodigy, if you're interested).

I eventually arrive back in Wokingham just before 10pm, fourteen hours after I started. I excitedly gulp half a litre of chocolate milk, pick my way through a chippie and run a hot bath, sinking into it whilst consuming whatever the Costco version of a Magnum ice-cream is. Because when you've run for ten hours and burnt 7,700 calories, frankly, you can do whatever you like.

Day 2 - Target Mileage: 52

Day 2 - Actual Mileage: 53.2

Total Mileage so far: 93.5

Pausing for thought* at a fuelling top near Dorchester

* Thought was: "This was a TERRIBLE idea"

If reading this has inspired you to make a contribution to the Sport for Africa fund, you can do so here.

More river related hilarity and blundering numbskullery in Part 2.

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