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Thames Ring Report 2013

By Ernie Jewson

Thames Ring Plaque
Day One
2013 was my third attempt at this race. The first attempt (2009) was unsuccessful as I was forced to quit at 156 miles as my feet were shredded. My 2nd attempt (2011) I finished well within the cut off time but although I was physically strong I suffered bad hallucinations, I was delirious and disorientated and I felt I had lost it mentally. As a consequence my main goal of this race was to finish well in a good frame of mind and psychologically strong. It was not about race position although a good finish placing would have been a bonus. The race plan was to run with Andy Ives, the toughest guy I know, as we both saved each other from falling into the canal many times on the third night of the race 2011 on a terrible wet and windy night where other runners in the race fell into the canal.

Ernie and Andy Start

The plan was not to go off too fast especially as the forecast was for very hot weather and many inexperienced runners would not last the distance if running hard in those conditions. At the 1st Checkpoint (27.25 miles) I was a bit slower than in 2011 but still very much on target. The first section was difficult because we had to battle through the crowds at the Henley Regatta and Andy was fretting about it quite a bit. At Windsor the experienced ultra runner John Poole caught up with us whilst we were having a break and he did not look good. The muggy weather was taking its toll on the runners, including us, we suffered some sun stroke as although the sun was beating down we were shivering a bit. John had an amazing finish in 2011 in 4th place but this tough runner was beaten by tiredness and the weather (he later retired). It was around this time that I was chatting to Andy who boasted that he never gets stomach problems on ultras – famous last words! Shortly after this he came down with a dose of diarrhoea and had to dart off to the toilet on several occasions in a short space of time. On one of these unscheduled visits to the loo Andy left his map behind and then had to run back and wait outside the toilet door until the person who followed him in vacated so he could retrieve it! We lost some time here but it was of no great concern as we were not under any time pressure at that stage. Fortunately as I am a walking pharmacy I was able to provide Andy with some anti-diarrhoea tablets which eventually resolved his problem. We arrived at CP 2 (55.05 miles) feeling good and that we had not over-worked it in the hot weather. We stayed there for over an hour (Andy, by his own admission is a faffer!) and this is where we acquired Kate as a running companion. She had been running with Lindley Chambers but he had dropped out here with back trouble. The following night section was quite dangerous as 2 runners had been mugged there in 2009 as Tony Nott, also running this year, confirmed to us as he had been one of the victims. We decided to stick with Kate through the night for her safety.

Day Two
It was during this 3rd section that my quads seized up. The temperature had dropped dramatically and the pain in my quads was making it hard to run. I had no idea why this was as every other part of my body felt fine. Kate is a sports therapist (something we have in common) and offered to give me a quadriceps massage. So there I was on the Thames just outside London in the early hours of the morning, shivering, pants down, in my underwear, as Kate set about my quads working her magic whilst Andy shuffled about uncomfortably a discreet distance away! Kate rubbed some ibuprofen gel (from my mobile pharmacy) into my legs which brought enough relief to get me running slowly again. After about an hour I was running much better. We were run/walking on a 50/50 basis but Kate suggested we try 5 minute effort runs with 2 minute walk which I agreed to try. We did this for the next 8 miles to Yiewsley, CP 3 (82.25 miles). At CP3 upon checking my feet I discovered that I had very badly blistered toes. It was then a decision had to be made. I had 168 miles to go and I felt there was no way I could run at this pace for the remainder of the race and my only chance of finishing would be to walk, only running if it was necessary to make it in before checkpoint cut off times so that I could effectively cushion my feet from the impact of running. It was hard to persuade Andy to run on and not to stay with me but I assured him it was what I wanted and suggested Andy stay with Kate and wished them luck. At this stage I thought my chances were slim but I still had a slight hope of finishing. I would certainly try my best.

Ernie and Kate CP3

I set off from CP3 on Thursday morning (2nd day) walking fast and contemplating how on earth I was going to walk the next 168 miles on feet like this.  I figured if this was about digging deep and then some. I was going to have to practice what I had been preaching for years.  This was all about self belief if I did not hold onto this I was doomed to fail.  An hour or so later I came across Rikard.  He had pulled out of the race and when I asked him what the problem was he told me he kept falling asleep and almost falling into the canal.  I suggested power naps but he told me he had tried this but still kept crashing out.  He later said that he felt he had given up too easily.  Although I was walking slowly I realised that a lot of the others would not make it.  I stopped again on the way to try to effect some repair work to my feet with the medical supplies I had with me but planned to treat them properly at Berkhampsted where I had scalpels and antiseptic so I could lance and drain them safely (you can tell I am no stranger to blisters – I come equipped!).  Although not positive about finishing I was up for the challenge.  I was still perplexed as to why my feet were in this state so early in the race.  My shoes were the same make/model and half a size larger than I used in 2011, same type socks – high grade merino wool, I adopted the same pre-race foot treatment (regular moisturising) yet at 80 miles my feet were in the same state that they had been in 2011 over a 100 miles later.   Whilst still pondering this mystery Gunnlaugur passed me.  We exchanged a few words and I watched him disappear.  At CP3 I had been in 14th place with 24 remaining but in this leg 3 runners passed me.  As I arrived at CP4 (105.85 miles) I questioned the wisdom of placing a checkpoint adjacent to a pub.  Here I was fortunate to acquire the services of Elisabet who did a fantastic job piercing/draining blisters and taping my feet.  Leaving this checkpoint I found my feet felt much better and I could actually run again without too much discomfort.  Only then did I feel my chances of finishing had improved.  I was walking faster, running a little, pushing it out more.  As the day wore on I increased the running although the pain did start to increase as I ran harder.  I started leap-frogging Tony Nott.  This was his 3rd attempt at this race.  In the course of conversation he told me he his legs had been operated on the previous year and he had steels rods in both legs and had been told he could never run an event such as this.  He had set about proving them wrong.  We ran together to CP5 at Milton Keynes (130.2 miles).  Here I got 45 minutes much needed sleep. 

Day Three
I left CP 5 at the same time as Javed Bhatti and shortly after Tony and Ian Holmes.  I ran with all of them in the early stages but eventually Javed and I ended up running together through the night.  Javed was one of the favourites to win this race but had suffered badly with blisters under his heels so I had the opportunity to enjoy his very entertaining company and his invaluable tips on how to look good in the finishing photo! The night was freezing and I found some cardboard which I stuffed up my jumper as an added measure to provide warmth.  I was really living the high life! Like a couple of vagrants we managed to get two or three power naps in the early hours of the morning whilst avoiding the onset of hypothermia. As it warmed up we started to run but the pain in my feet was too great so I let Javed go and continued walking.  This was just before Stoke Bruerne.  I came into Nether Heyford CP6 (156.2 miles) at 12:13 on Friday (3rd day) last one in. There were 16 of us left then.  Here it was good to see Bob Lovegrove and Pete Johnson old running mates and previous Thames Ringers. My intention was to grab some sleep here but changed my mind had a good meal (a packet rice meal I had brought with me). Tony and Ian had left about 40- 45 minutes before me and I left at 13:17 now just 43 minutes before the cut off. It was an extremely hot day and I started to experience a very strange sensation that I was persistently walking uphill. I felt I needed a 10 minute power nap which seemed to help a little. After about 5 miles at Wilton I saw Tony flaked out asleep in the shade of a lock. I did not want to wake him as it was early in the leg time. This was the last I saw of him in the race. Walking on in the heat I came across Ian Holmes sitting above the Braunston Tunnel complaining of an unnatural pain, in his lower leg. I suggested he take a couple of ibuprofen which he did and a few minutes later he caught up with me saying he felt much better? I last saw him at the Grand Union Canal/Oxford canal junction at Napton. From here the section became progressively worse as it was overgrown and very slow going all the way to Fenny Compton. As darkness fell it was hard to tell the difference between canal and track and it seemed to go on forever. I got to Fenny Compton CP 6 (183.14 miles) an hour before the CP closing time and found out there that Tony and Ian had withdrawn although Ian was not far away and would probably have made it to the CP. It was hard to get my gear together and get any rest in the limited time I had. I took off with Thomas Eller just minutes before CP closing time, very tired through lack of sleep.
Day Four
Leaving Fenny Compton just before 2am (the cut off time) at the start of day 4 with Thomas following shortly behind, with no sleep and desperately tired I tried to pick up the walking pace and run where possible. Thomas was soon gone from my sight. The path was very broken up and it was not easy going but I came to the conclusion that I had to do something as I was fed up with getting to CP’s so late that I had no time for food, sleep and to tend my feet. I knew that to do this I would have to pick up my pace quite considerably so I started alternating running and walking fast within my foot pain tolerance.  Tiredness was taking its toll and the desire to fall asleep was very strong. I found myself blanking out nearly falling into the canal at times but still pushing myself to snap out of this lethargy. I felt I was being pulled in 2 directions – to run fast or to go to sleep. I found a dry place under a bridge and set the alarm on my mobile phone and took a 10 minute power nap and woke up feeling re-charged and took off along the canal at a much better pace. Shortly afterwards I came across Javed who was also about to take a power nap. I remember feeling quite envious of the fact that he had selected a far more stylish bridge to sleep under than mine. He asked me if I was joining him for a power nap and I said I had already had one. Javed said he would catch me up. I did not see Javed again on this leg. Still I continued my running then walking nearly falling into the canal again so I took a couple more 5 minute power naps along the way. I was still trying to push myself and lift my pace. I knew if I pushed myself hard enough my body would produce the endorphins to give me the lift that I required. Gradually I got to the point where I was running non-stop, slow at first then building to a good speed. I then contemplated catching up to Andy and Kate. I phoned them to find out where they were and they told me the bridge number. I told them I would run them down and I took off with a purpose – a predator mentality. I was so high on running I could not feel the pain, it felt great to run after around 100 miles of mainly walking. I was flying maybe 7:30 pace, it certainly felt like it. I asked people I saw if they had seen any runners some said they had seen people running, some said walking and about 1 hour 30 minutes later I caught Kate who was struggling with shin pain and walking up the canal. I stayed with her and managed to get her back into running again. I did not need to do more as I had time in the bank now. I had thoroughly trashed my feet but psychologically it gave me a massive boost. I arrived at CP8 (205.98 miles) at 9:59, four hours before the cut off much to the surprise of Debbie who was managing this checkpoint. Here Andy, Kate and myself enjoyed a meal of sausage mash and beans and as I was having beer withdrawal symptoms I also downed a bottle of Becks beer! The decision was made that I would stay with Kate as Andy was going for a time. He wanted me to go with him but the speed I had been doing over the last leg had taken its toll on my feet so I opted to stay with Kate to make sure she got to the finish. I spent some time here getting my toes and feet cleaned thoroughly with antiseptic and the blisters re-dressed. Kate left just ahead of me and I left the CP running and caught up with Kate fairly quickly. It was another hot day. Kate was suffering shin pain and with the endorphins in my system not so prevalent my blister pain kicked in. It was painful walking at snails pace. We came into Oxford hungry and both had the desire for fish and chips but first we stopped on a park bench as we needed a 10 minute power nap. We woke feeling very cold and felt that the temperature had dropped and changed into warmer clothes. 5 minutes later we noticed everyone was walking around in T shirts and very quickly our winter clothes came off and we were back in cooler attire – crazy! It was then we ran into Jim who had left CP 9 as a scout. We decided to stop at one of the pubs for a meal. This was the only point I had a hallucination. I saw a pub sign embedded in a tree! On a race where I found myself pre-occupied with beer at times it was probably the obvious hallucination choice! Having found the real pub we went in and tried to order fish and chips but it was not on the menu so we ordered 2 ploughmans instead. We were told it would be around 15-20 minutes but after Jim had a word with the barman the meal turned up miraculously quickly on the table, fantastic service. Whilst in the pub Javed walked in ordered a drink and sat down with us. Shortly after Jim spotted Thomas walking by and invited him to join us but he more intent on getting to the next checkpoint. Jim joined Thomas and shortly after Javed left. We forced ourselves onwards shortly after, feeling satisfied after a good meal and made our way to Abingdon. Kate’s shin was bad and she was in a lot of pain. To make things worse she got an infection in her eye which was red, swollen and irritated. I phoned ahead to Debbie to ask for an eyewash for Kate when she came in. Debbie and Neil O’Manonaigh-Lennon rushed off to a pharmacy to pick one up. When we came into CP 9 (229.53 miles) at 11:15pm we had plenty of time before cut off. Debbie treated Kate’s shin with a freeze patch and Kate used the eyewash. Being that I do not eat meat all they had to offer me was macaroni cheese and fruit cake so I took a couple of pieces of cake (which was really nice) and some hot tea. We grabbed an hours sleep and departed at 00:30 (day 5), 2 hours before CP closure time.

Day Five
It was hard going on the way to Goring, the first half in particular was rough and slow in parts and the night mist caused the ground to become quite wet. My feet were saturated even through my waterproof socks, soaking the strapping off my feet and I had blisters on the side of my foot as well now adding to the pain. I was a little worried we were going very slowly. We had to lift our pace or we might not finish. Coming into Benson early morning I saw a local man and asked if the coffee shop was open. He told me it wasn’t but offered to make me a cup of tea which I put into my drink bottle. Kate walked on and waited for me at a bench about 100 metres up.  She laid down on it and fell asleep. As I arrived it seemed she was completely comatosed. I had to lift her bodily from the bench to wake her and hold her steady for a while as she walked to prevent her falling over. We made our way to Wallingford and the surface was much better, there were good walking tracks and Kate got going again although she would slow at times. At times she was stronger than me, other times I was the stronger, we stayed together each driving the other. We stopped shortly after Wallingford for a power nap and I gave Kate a neck massage as she had been having trouble with this the whole race. This had an amazing effect so much so that I had trouble keeping up with her for the last 6 miles of the race! Not long after this Pete ran up to us and reported our position to Dick. Within a few minutes Debbie ran up to us and came into the finish with us. About a mile from the finish Kate’s husband and children ran up and this gave her a real lift. We came into Goring with Kate and I running over the bridge to the finish together. My finish time was 97 hours 10 minutes and we were joint 13th. Then it was time for me to step back, this was Kate’s moment – 1st lady and 1st ever British lady finisher, a massive accomplishment. I felt good though the feet were shattered. Nici pounced on me shortly after I arrived desperate to get to my feet! As she worked on me I drank a well earned beer, with Thomas joining me. Nici did a great job giving Debbie advice and explaining possible complications that could occur. I was pleased as I had achieved my goal. felt I had finished the race better, my head was straight and I felt fine physically too. This is a great race, the amount of work and unselfish dedication put in by the organisers and marshals to make this race such a success for such a small field of 33 runners is phenomenal. And will I be back in 2015? You bet I will, the race is fantastic - I love it!

Ernie Finishing