Thames Trot 50: Race report

Position: 23rd out of 249

Time: 7 hours 12 minutes and 20 seconds

Distance: 48 Miles

 

Split times:

10 miles: 1 hour 15 mins

20 miles: 1 hour 21 mins for 2nd 10 miles;    2 hours 36 mins cumulative

30 miles: 1 hour 34 mins for 3rd 10 miles;     4 hours 10 mins cumulative

40 miles: 1 hour 39 mins for 4th 10 miles;     5 hours 49 mins cumulative

 

25 miles:  3 hours 19 mins 36 secs

Half Marathon;  1 hour 38 mins 39 seconds

Marathon:    3 hours 31 mins 22 seconds

 

Preparation

I’d always planned to move more into ultra marathon running this year.  I’ve entered a 69 mile race from Carlisle to Newcastle in June, and also the 4 race UK Ultra series.  With this in mind I chose the Thames Trot 50 as a good first ultra marathon race.  It’s a predominantly flat course from Oxford to Henley on Thames, along the Thames Path, and I saw this as a good chance to establish what sort of speed I could complete the distance in, how to pace myself etc.

I travelled down on the Friday night after work.  Going away for an ultra race does involve a lot of planning and careful packing.  I needed to ensure I had all the right food, drinks, kit etc.  Having ticked this all off, I set off for Oxford and arrived at a guest house near to the race start, at around 9.15pm.

I awoke early on Saturday with the temperature at an incredible minus 7 degrees!  I figured that I’d be OK once I got going, but was glad to have my hat and gloves with me.  My main concern was to finish before the forecast snow later that day!

I jogged the 1 mile from the guest house to the start of the race, which was a pleasant warm up – although perhaps I should have been conserving my energy for the 50 miles that lay ahead!  Registration was at a pub, which was buzzing with people tucking into bacon sandwiches and the like.  I decided to pass on more food, having already had my usual pre-race muesli at the guest house.  I spent most of the time waiting outside, making the most of the 2 Chiminea fires which we huddled round.  The atmosphere was great – hundreds of runners, all very chilled out about the task in hand, and really friendly.

Eventually 8.30am came round, and we endured the pre-race briefing outside, trying not to turn to ice (apparently it was still minus 7 degrees!) and then we were ready to go!

Section 1: Setting a “blistering” pace

Happy runners at the start! Copyright Richer Sea Photography

The course took us down a short road and we were soon running alongside the Thames.  The views were instantly like a picture post card – the sun shining, and the ground white from the heavy frost, as the pretty path meandered along the riverside.

My plan for the race was to stick to an early pace of between 8 and 8 ½ minutes, in the hope that I could maintain an average close to 8 ½ to 9 minutes over the duration of the race.  But as usual I failed miserably in this regard!!

From the start I found myself in the leading pack, in the main staying in 3rd position.  The pace felt so comfortable.  I was doing 7 ½ minute miles, which is a lot slower than my usual pace for marathons and other shorter races.  I knew that this wasn’t sustainable, but it was very hard to slow down.  The sun was out, I was enjoying the run and I guess I was enjoying being up with the leaders.  I had 2 voices in my head……  Sensible Mark was saying “you need to stick to the plan of 8 ½ minute miles, or you’ll suffer later”…..  Stupid/Competitive Mark was saying “but this is your first ultra race, you don’t know how fast you can go, so how do you know that you can’t sustain a faster pace – why not stick it out for a while and that’ll leave me well placed for a good time even if I slow later…..”.

Unfortunately “Stupid/Competitive Mark” shouted the loudest!!  I stuck with that early pace, and stayed with the leading pack until close to the first checkpoint, clocking 75 mins for the first 10 miles – way too fast!

Approaching the first checkpoint. Copyright Richer Sea Photography

Copyright Richer Sea Photography

Section 2: The going gets tougher

In the next 10 miles I started to feel it a bit.  The frozen, sometimes uneven ground was taken it’s toll on my legs and they were tightening a little.  I dropped off from the leaders, but still stayed in around 12/13th position for most of this stretch, as I completed the second 10 miles in around 81 minutes – still too fast!

After about 15 miles, my shins started to hurt.  I’d suffered from shin splints in my left leg after a long fell race in January.  I thought that a couple of weeks rest had cured this, but the hard ground seemed to have brought the problem back.  As the miles wore on, the pain increased.  It was bearable, but I was getting worried that it would get to the stage when I would have to stop.

Approaching checkpoint 2 (20 miles). Copyright Richer Sea Photography

Section 3:  A mental and physical test

As I passed the second checkpoint at around 20 miles, I knew that I had overdone it and that the remaining 30 miles would be a tough slog.  Miles 20-30 were probably the hardest of the race.  My legs were so heavy, which was frustrating me as I hadn’t even done a marathon distance…..and there was so far to go.

One of the problems of this route is its repetitive nature.  It is almost all flat.  Whilst this should make it easier, it means that you are continuously using the same muscles, and without the variation that hills bring…..and so in some respects this is harder on the body.  It’s also hard mentally.  The route is very pretty, but the views are all based around running through fields and alongside rivers.  As the race moved on, I longed for some hills and a change of scenery to break things up.

I dug in, not really focused on my speed, although I was managing around 9-9 ½ minute miles.  My first focus was on getting to the half way point.  Around half way I chatted to another runner for a while.  This helped a couple of miles pass by, including completing marathon distance in just over 3 ½ hours.  Just before he moved ahead (he had sensibly started slowly and was still running strongly) the other runner told me that the course was actually “only” 48 miles.  This was the best thing I had heard all day.  It doesn’t sound like much, but rather than having 23 miles to go, I now only had 21 to go and in my head that was a big difference.

Approaching checkpoint 3 (27 miles). Copyright Richer Sea Photography

Checkpoint 3 - it's tough going! Copyright Richer Sea Photography

Digging in as I reach checkpoint 3 – 27 miles

Section 4: On the up!

I soon reached the 3rd checkpoint, not longer after mile 27.  I was so glad to get here.  I filled up my electrolyte drink, and took a breather for a minute.  I then decided to walk for a minute or so, before breaking into a run again.  This was a good strategy and set me up for a much better section.   I was still feeling very tired, but I managed to get into a pretty good rhythm, grinding out 9 ½-10 minute miles.

There were a couple of hills early in this section.  I really enjoyed these climbs, breaking up the constant flat riverside running.  I climbed and descended quite strongly, passing one runner on the way.

I set myself small targets – get to 30 miles, then 32 miles (2/3 of the route), then only 3 miles to the next checkpoint etc.  This was a much better plan than just thinking about the 20 or so miles left to complete, and it was crucial in seeing me through to the end of the race.  A lot of people advise that completing big races is far more dependent on mental strength than physical strength/ability, and from my experience I completely agree.

Section 5: Grinding it out

The section after checkpoint 4 was tougher, mentally.  The route went round the outskirts of Reading, and so was more suburban.  I found this a little dull, and the monotony made the miles go by quite slowly.  I was also overtaken by a good handful of runners who were coming through really strongly, and who clearly had got their tactics right – start slowly, finish strongly.  This didn’t help my mood.  But I was able to dig in and grind out the 10 minute miles throughout the section.

I was feeling quite nauseous during this section as well, which I think is quite common after this distance.  It was hard to keep eating, although I knew I needed to.  I forced some Cliff Shot Blocks down me, and part of a flapjack, and I made sure I kept taking my electrolyte drink.

Getting past the 40 mile point was a big milestone, and from there I knew I was really counting down.  This was a big lift, and I was also boosted by the thought that checkpoint 5 was only a couple of miles away.  I ran a good 2 mile stretch and was pleased to reach the final checkpoint.

Section 6: The final stretch

I took a quick rest at the checkpoint and then employed the same tactic of walking for a minute or so.  In that time 2 more runners overtook me.  With hindsight, I wish I had stuck with them as I think I was capable of hanging in there and it would have boosted my time and placing, as they ended up finishing a few minutes ahead of me.  But at that point I couldn’t drive myself to go after them.

That said, I still had a good final section.  It was nicely broken into a 2 ½ mile run into the village of Lower Shiplake, and then a final 2 ½  mile stretch to Henley.  Some of the houses in Lower Shiplake were just amazing – this was a theme throughout the route.  I can’t begin to imagine how much they cost!  One house had grounds so big that it had its own train track running around it, and a train station, next to the tennis court!!

Back to the running, and as I passed through Lower Shiplake I knew I was going to be OK.  I started to push a little more strongly to get the best time possible.  Soon I only had a mile to go.  I picked up the speed again, enjoying the final run in to Henley.  It was a great sight to come round the bend and see the finishing tents across one final field.  I managed something of a sprint finish, enjoying my moment of glory!

I finished in just over 7 hours and 12 minutes., and I’m delighted with that time.  It should equate to around 7 ½ hours for 50 miles – and before the race that was the very best that I hoped for, with my main goal being to beat 8 hours.

"Sprint" finish at the end! Copyright Richer Sea Photography

I've done it!! Copyright Richer Sea Photography

Two things disappointed me slightly.  Firstly I was told that I’d finished inside the top 20, but when the results came out I was 23rd out of the 249 starters – still a credible result.  Secondly, after all that effort, it would have been nice to get over the 50 mile mark, and so it was a shame that the race finished 2 miles short of that…..although as I mentioned, news of this 2 mile “gain” was a real boost to me when I was psychologically plummeting earlier in the race.

I finished in dry conditions and in the daylight.  As I took the train back to Oxford the snow started to fall heavily, and I have nothing but admiration for those who ran for up to another 5 hours in the snow and in the dark!  That is real endurance.

In summary, a great day which I really enjoyed.  I’ve learnt a lot about being disciplined and pacing myself.  I also think I should have drunk more, although my eating strategy worked fairly well.  I’ve also learnt that the ultimate key to succeeding in these events is determination and mental strength.  Overall I was very please d with my time and position, but at the same time I think there is room for improvement, with a better pacing strategy.  So, lots to think about and look forward to in the rest of this year, and some good memories from this day to reflect on.

 

 

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