This event takes place from Oxford to Henley on Thames along the river Thames. I stayed at the hotel at the start the night before as I didn’t fancy an early start and had a nice meal at the pub down the road. On the way to register at the start, all of about 200m from my bed, I bumped into Dave Ayling who I did not know was taking part and assumed I would see Katie at some point soon. Sure enough on the way to the start I met her as well.
As expected it was drizzling at the start so waterproofs were in order. Quickly leaving the village we turned onto the Thames path and entered a mudbath. It set the tone for the rest of the day. I had trail shoes on, not out and out mud shoes and I was no worse off than those who did. Anyone in road shoes would have been making no progress at all. In every step at least one foot would slip in any direction apart from propelling you forward. Although the path is flat progress was slow due to the conditions under foot. Overtaking had to be carefully timed as there was no guarantee that you would be able to accelerate to get past or that the person being overtaken would not suddenly change direction, either intentionally or unintentionally. The path conditions improved when close to villages, where it was often paved, or crossing farmers fields as everyone could spread out. Wherever the route became constricted, at gates for example, the mud would be ankle deep.
Checkpoints were about every 8-10 miles and provided some morale boosting encouragement and gels, bread pudding and water. The midpoint checkpoint has real food of sausages, pasties, pork pies etc. which makes a nice change and certainly helped me with my fuelling.
I did not know the path from Oxford to Reading but as we got closer to Reading it started to become familiar from other ultras I have done along the path. Unlike nearer towards London, the early section does not have many bridges and where there are bridges they have shallow rams, rather than the steep slopes that characterise the bridges further in. We passed many rowing clubs out on the river and they can not have been enjoying the light drizzle and overcast conditions any more than we were. Where the river turned north the icy wind tried its best to depress us further but being ultra runners we were having none of that and continued onward.
Somewhere along here I passed Katie who was suffering with lack of training and the energy sapping conditions. She was already just trying to make the cut-off times. I wished her luck.
Given the conditions underfoot I did not worry about remembering to breakup the run with sections of walking as these were imposed by the amount of mud. I have learnt that trying to run all day does not work and walking up hills helps but of course there were no hills!
Streatley and Goring came and went and we turned onto a path used by a duathlon I used to do so I knew about the only hill on the route. Up and over we went and then along the railway and into the outskirts of Reading. The horrible bridge where the Kennet joins, hated since the multiple traverses during the Saturday Night Marathon and along Thames Valley Park site of the ParkRun. Sonning control came and on went the head torches. We had to leave the control in pairs. I think we were supposed to stay together but as soon as we were out of sight my pairing split up. In daylight the path may have been much the same as the earlier sections but with only a head torch we were reduced to walking as the conditions seemed to have got even worse. Forward progress was being made and eventually the path firmed up, the bridges along the river appeared and Henley Church could be seen. Sprinting (shuffling) for the line and I finished, to be greeted by Dave with the reassuring news that Katie was not far behind me at the last checkpoint. Two medals received as there was an extra one to celebrate 10 years of organising ultra for all those who had also completed the Country to Capital Ultra the previous month.
The finish is in sight of the Railway station and although I tried to change hurriedly out of my muddy shoes, I watched the train arrive and depart so another 50 minutes to wait for the next one. I walked to the station and shortly after Dave and Katie arrived. The train was full of runners on the short journey to Twyford where the numbers split between those going to Reading and those to Paddington. It was nice to journey home with Katie and Dave and unwind about the day. Thanks to them also for a lift back to Sandhurst.
In summary, mud, mud, slipping, mud. In an extended summary, I think the conditions were particularly bad this year. Dave has done this several times and said it was the worst he had seen. It is a well organised event and the route is easy to follow and great support from fellow competitors. Getting to and from the start is easy – Oxford is less than an hour from Blackwater, Henley under ninety minutes.