7.30 am, Putney Bridge, SW London. Hundreds of people milling around as the smell of bacon rolls wafts through the air. It’s the start of the Thames Path Challenge, a 100k riverside event passing through Kew, Richmond, Runnymede, Windsor, Maidenhead, Cookham, Marlow and finally Henley. Some will run it, some will walk; some will do 25 or 50k and others will do the whole 100k.
For the third and final time this year, Caralyn and I were about to start an ultramarathon. I was looking forward to a flat, scenic route. I was NOT looking forward to walking through the night but I shut that out of my mind for the time being. The sun was breaking through the London clouds, the last runners had departed and our start time of 7.45 arrived. We were off.
The first part of the walk passed quickly. There was plenty to see from the green parakeets squawking in the trees to the rowing crews and early-morning joggers. We built up a good speed and were told at the 10k rest stop that we were in the top ten walkers – not bad for a combined age of 102. Unfortunately, it was at this early stage that I began to sense blisters forming, which was not a good sign as they usually wait till the 50k point. Caralyn’s knee began to hurt too. With hindsight, I think I should have walked in trainers, with plenty of cushioning. The trail shoes I had chosen had the advantage of being sturdy and waterproof but they didn’t have enough cushioning for a mainly tarmac and gravel footpath. On top of that, our feet were still recovering from Race to the Stones and were more prone to blistering as a result. We slowed down a bit and distracted ourselves from the twinges of pain by talking.
The sun rose and it began to get really warm, with a fairly strong head wind, which made walking a bit harder. By now, we were mingling with tourists and people out for Saturday lunch, The hotter and sweatier we became, the more self-conscious we felt as we walked past the fresh and fragrant Saturday-morning-strollers (like the couple below). Many people were curious about our walk and asked us where we were going. The word “Henley” was a surprise for most and one man was baffled: “That’s a day out in the car!” Before long we arrived at the golden gates of Hampton Court Palace. I loved the twisted brick chimneys and the walled gardens and made a mental note to visit again one day.
We walked on, past stunningly beautiful houses for mile after mile. I wonder if I have ever seen so much conspicuous wealth for such a prolonged period. This wealth was interspersed with shabby, peeling houseboats and the faded remains of riverside industry. There were boats of all descriptions from the smallest canoe to cruisers and paddle steamers.
In the late afternoon, shortly before the 50k point at Runnymede, we became aware of an annoying cyclist following close behind us. It was not the first irritation of the day. We had spent a lot of time dodging all sorts of hazards, from rowing teams blocking the path while hauling their boats in and out of the water to speeding cars, aggressive joggers and fields of bulls. However it turned out that this annoying cyclist was Caralyn’s brother Mark, armed with emergency Pepsi and salt and vinegar crisps. If you have ever attempted an ultramarathon, I can assure you that these are just the things you need after 8 hours walking. He accompanied us to Runnymede where we were joined by my Dad, his partner and Caralyn’s partner Michael. What an amazing support team!
Leaving the 50k rest stop was very difficult. After a 45 minute rest, I could hardly walk because of the blisters: I could feel sharp pain from three different places on each foot so every step hurt. Caralyn’s knee was causing her a lot of pain too. This was bad news, given that we had another 50k to go and we would be slower in the dark. We hobbled at first and then gradually picked up the pace again. By now, we were becoming extremely sensitive to every change of terrain as it impacted on our pain levels. Loose stones were “agony”, uneven grass was “horrible”, smooth concrete felt “relatively good” and best of all was this brief stretch of wood chippings: it was like a bouncy carpet and for a few minutes the pain eased.
As the daylight began to fade, our spirits were lifted a little by the sights and sounds of Windsor at sunset. Riverside bars and restaurants bustled with life below the castle ramparts. Fairy lights were switched on, music played, delicious smells wafted through the air and we were sorely tempted to abandon the walk and join one of the parties. The beauty of the sunset was all the more poignant because we knew we would soon be walking in darkness with little to distract or entertain us.
Before long, twilight turned to night and we turned on our head torches. In the pitch dark we could just make out the presence of the river while the path was marked by occasional glowsticks hanging from trees. Everyone had been given glowsticks to tie to their backpacks so although we walked alone, we’d sometimes see swaying ghostly green lights far behind and far ahead of us. From time to time, the darkness was lit up by the glow of fires and torchlight on the riverbank, where night fishers sat silently in an eerie vigil.
As we walked, we talked about how friendly people seemed on this event. There was a great sense of camaraderie, with rest stops being an opportunity to ask how others were doing and to share advice, wisdom and plasters. This had not been the case at Race to the Stones where there had been a greater feeling of competition and people out for themselves – possibly because runners and walkers all set off at the same time so we were caught up in the frenzy of highly competitive athletes who really were racing to the stones. The Thames Path Challenge seemed a calmer, kinder event somehow. It wasn’t just the participants: many observers clapped and cheered us on our way and we passed several houses where the owners had left tables outside laden with food and drink and a sign encouraging us to help ourselves.
Then there was the brief encounter with a woman by the bridge in Maidenhead: it was almost midnight and a chill was in the air but she was sitting all alone with a big box of sweets, ready to hand them out to anyone who needed a boost. Not much later, at Cookham, a resident locking up his house noticed that we were heading off in the wrong direction so he called out to us and helped us find the right route. Perhaps these moments don’t sound particularly noteworthy, but when you are feeling exhausted, in pain and vulnerable, a little kindness from others goes a long way. One more example of thoughtfulness: approaching one of the later rest stops we saw some flashing lights near the entrance. What on earth was it? It turned out to be Michael’s car, converted into a lightshow with Abba belting out “Dancing Queen”. As a veteran supporter of our efforts, he knew we’d need some cheering up at that point.
As the night wore on, our walking became even slower and more of a hobble/waddle. Our eyes grew tired of trying to make out the path in the darkness and we stumbled and tripped over tree roots every so often, which didn’t help the blisters and knee situation. The air was cold and clammy and we felt nauseous, knowing we needed to keep eating but feeling sick at the thought.
One of our ways of coping with long-distance walking is to break it up (mentally) into manageable chunks. A manageable chunk is, for example, 5 miles – which (for those of you who are local) would be like walking to Northchurch from my house. So at the 88km rest stop, we calculated that the remaining 12k (7.5 miles) would be a matter of walking to Northchurch and then back to Little Heath Lane. This seemed do-able except that in the dark, those 12k could take three hours of walking and we didn’t feel we had that in us. Yet as we limped away from the marquee into the night, something came over us and we had the strength to pick up a really fast pace, as though we had no pain at all. We found ourselves overtaking people (something we hadn’t had the strength or desire to do for hours and hours) and it seemed that we almost flew over the dark fields and riverside paths. There were some enchanting moments in that final stage: I don’t think I’ll ever forget the field of white deer lit up by the starlight and the mist rising from the river as we approached Henley.
We reached the finish line around 3.15 am, after 19 hours and 27 minutes of walking. Several days later, once the blisters had begun to heal and our bodies had recovered from the lack of sleep, we were able to feel a sense of achievement for having reached our goal: three 100k events in the past five months. (In my case that’s more like 2.72 events but it wasn’t for lack of trying!) I’ll be sending a cheque for at least £500 to the orphanage in Mozambique and Caralyn has raised even more for MacMillan.
So what next? This was probably our last 100k event as we’re finding that the pain is beginning to outweigh the pleasure and we’d like to return to shorter walks. We have already registered for an event next April. More will be revealed soon – suffice to say that it is in France!
Thanks, as always, to Caralyn for taking photos while walking/limping!