The Thames Path Challenge continues...
FRIDAY 20TH SEPTEMBER 2019
After grabbing a hearty breakfast, aware of the ever-growing calorie deficit from the first couple of days, I lie on the floor staring at the ceiling, tempted to steal some more sleep. I attempt to mobilise my aching lower body, wincing as I aggravate the spots that are not very happy with this particular life choice. I take the train back to Tilehurst station, the return trip is thankfully a lot smoother. I start very sheepishly, wary that the troublesome areas in my legs need to be carefully eased into the idea of running. Whilst I'm working through all that, despite the fact that I'm passing through a neighbourhood I once worked in and should be very familiar with, I completely miss the turn I need to return to the river. I end up in the middle of an industrial estate being suspiciously eyed by several transit drivers - not the best start to the day.
My old pal Nick from my triathlon days in Reading has kindly offered to give up a few hours of his morning for a spot of bike support which I gladly accept. Once I make it back on course, he instantly grabs my Bergen and my day brightens as I remember what it's like to run without a bag full of kit, food and a couple of litres of water on your back. The additional win is that Nick knows this part of the world like the back of his hand so I don't need to worry about navigation. We just roll along and catch up for a few miles with the promise of coffee once I hit the hundred mile mark.
With seven miles on the watch and a hundred in total, we pause for a celebratory coffee at the very pleasant Coppa Club at Sonning Bridge, taking a few minutes to sit in the deckchairs and enjoy a brief rest in the sunshine. We press on, moving through a section of the Thames filled with enormous residences & sprawling lawns (and plenty of 'Private' signs to deter peasants from entry). At one point we cross a beautiful country estate, herds of deer moving through the trees amongst us, it's an incredible sight. We make it to Henley-on-Thames, thirteen miles, Nick reminds me of the Iron distance triathlon we both competed in here seven years ago and I chuckle as I recall my zombie-like marathon shuffle along this very path. I'm not in a dissimilar state today. He kindly offers to grab us some lunch whilst we're near shops and spins off whilst I continue to make my way along the path.
We pause for lunch and then approach Marlow, nearing twenty miles for the day. Nick finally has to depart and shoots off on his bike with my appreciation, meaning the Bergen is back on. Shortly after this, I start to feel quite uncomfortable and need to make an 'emergency comfort stop'. This involves me scrambling through woodland to find a secluded spot and frantically digging a hole. I think that's probably enough information for you.
I continue, not feeling quite with it but manage to trudge through another ten miles without incident and nearing thirty for the day. I hit Maidenhead and completely lose a) the Thames Path signage on the bridge and b) the plot, finding myself running laps around a garden in a trance before snapping out of it when I notice a family staring at me worriedly. I cross the bridge to find those acorn signs again, I'm in slog mode now, desperately trying to maintain some sort of form. I pass through Bray, spotting a boat full of chino-clad lads, drinking champagne and shouting for attention but I'm just concentrating on moving forward. I'm past Dorney Lake and know I'm down to my last few drops of energy. I check my map for a possible place to stop and decide to abandon at Windsor Leisure Centre for the day. With my couple of detours I'm a little short of my target destination but it allows for a quick exit which is what I need right now. Absolutely nothing left in the tank today.
Target Mileage: 35
Actual Mileage: 35.4
Total Mileage: 128.9
Passing through Henley-on-Thames along the old 'Challenge Henley-on-Thames' run route
SATURDAY 21ST SEPTEMBER 2019
After a decent nights rest, I return to Windsor Leisure Centre the following morning. It's a hive of activity with gym users and families in for the weekend swimming lessons. I grab an espresso to try to clear some of the fog clinging to my head and await my friend Hannah who is saving the day (and my poor body) by taking some kit directly to my overnight base. I set off at around 10am, waddling through The Brocas, marvelling at Windsor Castle across the way and wincing at the crunchiness of my troublesome spots. After three miles or so, I'm moving slightly easier, away from the river in Datchet (big riverfront houses I assume). I also discover that Old Windsor is a bloody long way from Windsor.
At nine miles, I reach Staines. briefly stopping to refuel at a bench outside a 'Slug & Lettuce' pub on the riverside where people are tucking into brunch and beer but I'm getting some strange looks so don't linger long. I move through Laleham and Chertsey, it's a beautiful sunny day and the locals are all flocking to gather on the riverside lawns and benches. it seems everyone is out soaking in the sun or in the pub garden for some lunch and a cold beer. Which is where I wish I was.
I near fifteen miles, approaching Weybridge. I'm supposed to be meeting some of my family near here but the riverside path disappears and I blindly set off on a alternative route away from the river that adds on extra distance. Thankfully my brother is tracking me and calls me to ask what on earth I'm doing and to return to take the ferry crossing. I'm not sure what I'm doing so I tell him I'm not sure and yes I'll do just that. The kids meet me off the ferry enthusiastically and we all run together in a nice family moment, I'm very grateful to have such a supportive family. They have a picnic set up nearby, we catch up on what's happened so far and I take on half a tuna sandwich before continuing along my way, acutely aware that any stop of more than ten minutes is now causing my left knee and ankle to seize up.
A couple of miles later, I hit Walton, I feel like I'm almost in London's arms. I pass through the middle of runners completing a 'Race to the Thrones' multi-lap race and through Hurst Park, crossing the bridge to pass Hampton Court Palace which is absolutely packed with sightseers. Twenty-four miles. After I struggle through Hampton and stop for a breather, Hannah meets me at Kingston Bridge with a sugar-loaded caffeinated drink and sandwich. I know I'm in the last hour of the day now. I get a bit confused in Kingston before slaloming through the flocks of people who have packed Ham and Richmond riverside on a perfect Saturday afternoon, my joints screaming with every deviation from a straight line. I finally make it to the very busy White Cross pub on Richmond riverside. Hannah greets me and I slump onto the cobbles. I'm not sure what's going to return life to my body so unwisely try everything that's ever made me feel better: chocolate milk, orange juice & lemonade, salty crisps, a pint of lager, some hummus... I feel quite ill.
One. More. Day.
Target Mileage: 28
Actual Mileage: 29.21
Total Mileage: 158.3
The ferry crossing that almost never was approaching Weybridge
SUNDAY 22ND SEPTEMBER 2019
My mind & body are well drilled by now. Wake up, don't dwell on the tiredness and the mileage for the day, get the kit on, get some food down quickly and get on with it.
For the first time in the entire challenge, the weather has taken a turn for the worse. Showers are forecast throughout the day and when we return to the White Cross at 8am, it's pissing down. The pub is showing the World Cup rugby and well, we could just wait... NO. The cobbles are slippy underfoot and the morning pains are spikier than they have been, all to be expected I suppose. I'm relieved to jump off the cobbles and onto the stone path until my feet start complaining about that. I'm aware I'm limping as I pass Old Deer Park and through Kew. As it's the weekend, a lot more people are out exercising than previous days and I occasionally have to avoid someone who is running or cycling directly toward me whilst desperately trying to hug the left of the path to avoid having to zig-zag. I'm dwelling way too much on the miles remaining and how slowly they are passing so start aiming for bridges to tick off one by one, Chiswick (4 miles), Barnes (5 miles), Hammersmith (6.6 miles), Putney (8.3 miles), I'm off the stones - hurrah!
I'm happy to be back in Putney, another neighbourhood from my past and on an old training route, cutting through the nice houses into Wandsworth Park and on to Battersea Bridge (11 miles) and Albert Bridge (11.5). I make a spiritual stop for a maple & pecan danish at the Peace Pagoda in Battersea Park before ducking under Chelsea Bridge and into the swanky new 'Circus' development around the power station which involves leaving the river and running through a massive, noisy construction site. I'm also diverted around Vauxhall and have to run alongside the busy road & numerous roadworks, it's a very different landscape and ambience now to the tranquil fields of a few days ago.
I move along Albert Embankment. Fifteen miles. I'm about to hit Tourist Central as I move under Westminster Bridge and along South Bank. Arriving into London's Greatest Hits means thousands of people, a lot of selfies and not much room to manoeuvre. I try to avoid too much zig-zagging to conserve energy and protect my joints but I'm also feeling a little anxious and need to get clear of all of these people. I meet my Mother at the OXO Tower and she's kitted up and keen to join for a couple of miles being the legend she is. After joining me on the slalom past the Tate, Harry Potter Bridge* and Shakespeare's Globe, she ducks out at London Bridge station and wishes me well. The crowds finally start to thin after Tower Bridge as I pass eighteen miles and hit Bermondsey. Time to concentrate on getting this thing finished.
* Well... It might as well be.
The focus doesn't last long. I grind to a halt at a bus stop in Rotherhithe, nineteen miles in. I take a seat and have one final sugar-loaded caffeinated drink before a brief pep-talk & slap on the back from Hannah, slowly rising to my feet to continue. These sections away from the river are sapping what little resolve I have left and I struggle through Deptford. 21 miles. The route continues out of sight of the river and through housing estates once more. I need a target so set my sights for Greenwich (23 miles). Make it to there and there's less than five miles to go. Digestible chunks.
I reach Greenwich and pause in front of the Cutty Sark. Every time I stop, it's becoming harder to get going again. I pledge that this break will be the last. Next target: The O2. I move out of Greenwich and into a more industrial part of the river, the silence here makes my body scream again. I pass the golf range and the O2. So very nearly there... The Thames Path signage starts to display the distance to the barrier - two and a half miles. I'm running on empty but can spy the tips of the barrier in the distance and my spirits rise, I know I'm almost done. I start trying to increase my pace to get there sooner but my knees are pretty locked up so end up just pumping my elbows and shuffling instead. I'm breathing heavily and I know my body has had just about enough.
I enthusiastically hop the steps up & down to the barrier, running through the tunnel and past the long picture that displays the Thames Path route in it's entirety, marking all the landmarks on the way. I saw this map a few years ago and it inspired the idea of running the whole lot. I grin as I glimpse the names of the many villages and towns I've run through in the last five days. Then I'm back in daylight, running past the visitors centre until I hit the wall beyond it that I had envisaged as my end point throughout. The end of the path. I'm done.
Target Mileage: 27
Actual Mileage: 27.26
Total Mileage: 185.4
Happy, relieved and utterly knackered @ Thames Barrier
With thanks to Hannah (and family) without whose help I would either still be uncomfortably crouched amongst weekend revellers on Richmond riverside, in a bad way in a bus shelter in Rotherhithe or in a very confused state at the Thames Barrier wondering how on earth I was going to get home. Special thanks also to all who helped me along the way.
Lastly a massive, massive thank you to all those who have made a kind contribution to Sport for Africa. Creating a fund to invest in community sport in areas of the highest need was the point of the whole daft challenge after all. Seeing these contributions come in throughout the run from family, friends and complete strangers helped raise my spirits and keep me focused during some of my most difficult moments.
I'm off to talk to someone about these nightmares I've been having involving running away from killer acorns...
🏃♂️ 185.4 miles, 7️⃣ marathons
📅 5 days
⌚ 34:01:16 time (11:00 min/mile pace)
🍞 22,923 calories