Follow the river: running the Thames Path 100
A 100-mile run from London to Oxford. It sounds so simple
Five hours is a long time to be out running in the heat. You’re chugging along, legs starting to creak, your brow soaked in sweat, when a thought pops into your head: “I have at least another 17 hours of this to go.”
It’s like tripping on a tree root, knocking you off your stride. At best. At worst it’s like running straight into a wall.
“It’s getting real now,” one guy said to me around five hours in to my Thames Path 100 race at the weekend - a mostly flat 100-mile (161km) race from London to Oxford following the Thames Path. Already getting real, with so far still to go. Yikes. Even after two hours I started passing people who already looked like they were deep in the pain cave, their bodies leaning to one side, their gait pained and awkward, their faces red.
It always amazed me when I passed them and said hello, that they seemed cheery and calm. As though they were just out for a walk. Their appearance made me expect a pained grunt in reply, but I often got a happy “what a lovely day” or some such comment. One guy I ran with for a while said it was probably just British politeness, a refusal to show any real emotion and a need to always appear fine.
I had experience of all this, of course. I knew what it was like to run 100 miles. And I had devices to deal with the negative, energy-zapping thoughts about how far I still had to go.
Firstly, and for the first time ever, I managed to start off at a reasonable, steady pace. At the first checkpoint 11 miles in I was in 158th position (out of around 400 starters). Often in the early stages in a race like this I’m troubling the top 20 - which is way beyond my actual level.
My other trick was to keep checking in with myself. “How are you feeling right now in this moment,” I’d ask myself. “Fine,” I’d reply. (Conversations with yourself are a defining feature of ultra running, I’d say.) And it was true; each time I asked this question - at least until about mile 85 - I really was feeling fine. The legs were tired, sure, but nothing was hurting too much, and I still had energy. So fine, all good, keep running. How I was feeling right in that precise moment was all that mattered.
I’ve talked before about finding little mantras in these races, and I tried my old “I feel no pain, I feel only joy” mantra again, but it felt contrived, like I was borrowing it from someone else. It seems these mantras need to arise spontaneously in the heat of the race to really work. The one I settled on this time began with me imagining myself running the Self-Transcendence 3100, and knowing that I’ll need to keep running while feeling this tired not just for a paltry 100 miles, but for weeks on end. So what I started saying to myself was (and don’t laugh, this was just between me and myself!): “This serene little shuffle is now my entire life.”
OK, it makes even me chuckle reading it back. But it seemed to work, in that if I was going to basically live like this, shuffling along, there was no point worrying about how long there was left, as there was forever left. Also, the “serene little shuffle” line seemed to make me feel calm somehow.
Another tactic I improvised during the race was to start running for 25 minutes and then walk for five minutes. I did this from about hour three until about hour 10, at which point, really starting to feel the squeeze now, I switched to 15 minutes running and five minutes walking. Time was starting to warp by that point and I’d try everything not to look at my watch, imagining that 10 minutes must have passed, only to finally look and see that only two minutes had gone by.
At first this tactic seemed to keep my mind away from the dreaded bigger numbers, keeping me focused on just the next 25 minutes. But by about 14 hours in I was driving myself crazy looking at my watch every 30 seconds, and so I binned the tactic suddenly. It was like a eureka moment, as though a huge cloud had lifted. I’d run when I felt able, and walk when I wanted, I decided.
One guy I’d been running with earlier had told me, after I’d been giving him my pipeline of excuses about being injured for two months, and then getting Covid, and not doing enough training, that I needed to be kind to myself. I know running 100 miles is not exactly being kind to yourself, but maybe not worrying too much about whether I ran 22 hours or 24 hours or any specific time, or whether I ran for 15 minutes straight or only 12, was a kindness of sorts.
Anyway, I barely looked at my watch again for the rest of the race - partly because it completely died soon after - and everything felt better. The aid stations appeared sooner than expected, rather than later, like they had been doing when I was focused on my watch. And time started to disentangle itself from my mind, leaving me free to wander through my thoughts. And boy, that was a journey too, especially in the midst of the night.
I ran a lot of the early section, past all the incredible houses that line the river as you leave west London, past the people sitting in their boats, past the cafes and pubs, past wealthy, middle-class England trundling lazily through a warm Saturday afternoon with picnics and jolly laughter, in a fairly untroubled state of mind. A few of the other runners recognised me and we chatted about the race, my books, running. I gave encouragement to those I passed and those overtaking me. It was a friendly, jovial day out running with a bunch of crazy, happy-go-lucky people. I actually remember thinking that I’d having nothing to write about later. That this was simply a nice day out by the river.
But, of course, night was coming.
The race started at 9.30am, so darkness began to descend around 11 hours in. Torches came out as we ran headfirst into the night. By now we were out of suburbia and there was very little street lighting, and the runners had spread out a lot. I found myself enjoying the solitude. In fact, I began to seek it. One guy recognised me and wanted to chit-chat, but I was craving the dark oblivion of the night, the chance to set my thoughts loose. I tried slowing down, to let him go on ahead, but he just slowed down too, to keep up the chatter. Being too polite to tell him that I didn’t want to talk, that I wanted to be alone, I had no other choice but to speed up. He must have thought I was mad, suddenly cranking up the pace so much that he eventually said: “I’ll let you go.”
I didn’t reply. I was gone.
My thoughts swirled and tumbled. Completely detached from the world, in this tiny bubble of light surrounded by endless darkness, I began talking out loud to myself. I went back through my memories, I made jokes, I laughed, I sang funny little songs made up on the spot. If I caught another runner, I tried to get by quickly so I could get back to my happy madness.
The aid stations were little breaks, where I could sober up, talk to real people, before ducking back out into my dreamlike world of whoops and songs and blackness and the occasional light of a boat, or some people sitting out by a fire by the river, or the hooting of an owl.
I was having fun, until my thoughts turned on me. I started to get mad, telling myself: “What’s wrong with you? This isn’t running, this is pathetic” etc, and calling myself names, delving momentarily into anger. In my 24-hour track race the same thing had happened and it had jolted me into action, prodded me to find more energy, to run faster. So I went with it. For a moment it buzzed me along, like a ghoul with a whip, but things were no longer fun. The darkness began to seem scary, and I started wanting the sun to come up.
Luckily by then, at around 4am, I glanced up at the sky to one side and saw the faintest sign of light. The birds had already been chirping for 20 minutes and I’d been telling them, out loud, that they’d gone too early. That the morning was still hours away. But they knew better, of course.
And with the rising light, the anger left. In fact all thoughts left. The watch had long since died and I now found myself running along in what I can only describe as a state of peace. My mind had stopped talking. There were no mantras, no conversations, no thoughts about the next aid station. I was just running in silence.
I don’t know how long it lasted, but it was wonderful. Perhaps it was only half an hour, maybe less, but as the sky turned blue and pink, and a fiery orange sun began to rise from the trees, I really did shuffle along serenely.
Alas, holding on to that state isn’t easy. At mile 85 the path became terribly rutted and hard to run on. I started to complain, to get annoyed. Goddammit, not now, just as I’m cruising. Every second step I was almost stumbling, so I decided to walk. But it went on and on. The peace was lost.
Eventually I arrived at the final aid station. Bright morning light now, a small table in an open-sided barn by the river, sparkling volunteers who seemed to want to will joy into each and every runner. It was just 4.7 miles from here, they said. It seemed nothing. One guy I’d just passed, running at a dangerous diagonal, collapsed in a chair. Another runner sat there staring into space, not responding when I spoke to him. I felt fairly OK by comparison, like I was running within myself. I sat there smiling. I was going to make it.
One guy arrived, grabbed some food and started walking out the other side of the barn. The volunteers told him that he was going the wrong way, that he had to come back to cross the bridge, that the way he was going was an illegal shortcut.
“I’m just getting all this shit over with,” he screamed back at them and carried on, skipping out the bridge.
I couldn’t help it, I just started laughing. The absurdity of it all, the rawness, the hugeness, the conflicting human emotions, the madness of running 100 miles, it was all bubbling away in that moment.
I picked up my bag and told the volunteers that I’d go the right way, over the bridge. Just 4.7 miles to the finish. What bliss.
The clock said 22 hours 37 minutes as I ran across the manicured grass of The Queen’s College cricket pitch and under the finishing arch, punching the air for no one. I had broken my best time for 100 miles, but that didn’t matter right then. All that mattered was that I had finished. I had run 100 miles. I had run all the way to Oxford. I was here. I was in one piece.
For many ultra runners, that moment you cross the finish line is at least partly why we do it. It’s fleeting but it’s so full of joy and happiness and relief. I sat there basking in it for a few hours in the warm summer sun, watching runner after runner cross the line in tears, clutching their finisher’s buckle. There was a warm sense of communion in knowing exactly how they felt. I didn't have to speak to them, or know their names, but somehow in that moment I could see right into their souls.
• Thank you to Veloforte for providing me with the bars, chews and gels to keep me going between the aid stations. They kept tasting good right until the end, which anyone who has run an ultra will know, is really saying something.