2015 T184 CHALLENGE – JERRY HUNTER

Success at a second attempt.

T184 is an endurance race running from the Thames Barrier to the source of the Thames at Thames Head, a total of 184 miles. To add to the challenge it is a self supported race – runners have to carry all their own food and equipment, and can only collect water en route.

Having pulled out of the 2014 inaugural race at Streatley (AKA “The Graveyard” due to the number of people dropping here), I entered the 2015 event with unfinished business to resolve.

2014

Looking back on 2014, I felt I had entered fairly well trained and was happy with the equipment and food supplies I had gathered together. What had gone wrong? – There were, I believe, a number of factors contributing to my 2014 failure:

  1. Pre-race preparation. In 2014 I had run the Grim Reaper ultra 100 miler just under 3 weeks before T184, and in retrospect this was probably just a bit far just a bit soon before T184, although I had tapered down the after and did not feel any fatigue, I do not think I was on top form when I stood on the start line.
  2. Pace – I have long legs and find it difficult to keep a slow pace, and despite my good intentions, when we started I allowed myself to get pulled along with the front runners, arriving at CP1 in just over 4 hours close to the front of the race…
  3. Fuel and Hydration – Despite having a good supply and selection of food, I didn’t take in enough food early on, eating nothing before CP1, and little between CP1 and 2.

Arriving at Streatley, about on schedule, I was not excessively tired, but had developed a significant pain in my right calf, mainly I believe as a result of biasing my gait to try to minimise damage to a pre-existing left ankle injury (this is an old motorcycling injury which is always with me). My feeling at this point was that I may well be able to carry on to the next CP but finishing was not a realistic proposition, and having slept on it for a few hours, I confirmed my withdrawal. With hindsight, this exposes the greatest cause of my failure:

4. Mental preparedness and attitude – This is a long and tough event. It will hurt. One should enter it in the knowledge that it will be painful and short of risking permanent injury, you need to be prepared to run / walk / hobble through significant pain.

2015

So, winding forward 12 months to 2015 I found myself on the start line again. Kit pretty much the same. Similar amount of food when measured in calories, but chosen and located for easy access to make regular small intakes en route easier and with an intention to do so. I had a fairly good year’s running, with T60 and GUCR finishes and my last big run had been the Grim Reaper 70 miler which this year had been 4 weeks previous, giving a little more recovery. Despite this, I actually suspected my physical form was maybe a little lower than 2014, but I also knew that I understood the race ahead better, had a more defined strategy based on experience and was prepared to take a slower start at my own pace.

It was good to see old friends at the start, both those who had finished last years and others like myself back for a second attempt, and some new faces.

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Jerry pictured at the start of the race (Photo by Paul Ali)

At 10.35 we were off. I had chosen not to be on the front of the group awaiting the start, but towards the middle. Within a short period it became apparent that even at a chosen steady pace I was faster than many, but tried to keep at a pace I felt comfortable. I found myself falling in step with Lee Bhagat – surprisingly, as he was running the 100 (he would finish 2nd in this) – I was wary of trying to maintain his pace, and eventually let him slip ahead, and just ran at my own pace.

Having ploughed through the tourist zombie apocalypse (Hey ! try looking in the direction you are walking and do so in a straight line !) at Tower Bridge, it was on along the river, arriving quickly in another tourist thicket at Westminster still towards the front of the race.

A quick fill up and a snack at the 13 mile water stop and onward again. Arriving at CP1 I was surprised to find my pace was still fairly quick, but as planned slower than last year. I intentionally took about 15 minutes over the stop, to drink, replenish water and take on food.

Heading off from CP1, before reaching Sion Park there was an interesting moment on slippery mud on the towpath which brought me close to a quick bath, and then it was onward at a quick paced walk for a few miles before breaking back into a run.

Next point of note was Teddington Lock, where Jane Benson and Dave Cox caught up with me but stopped off to fill their water bottles – we were to frequently pass and re-pass one another for the rest of the race.

CP2 came up shortly after it started to get dark, I took a relatively short stop here to top up water, slurp down some ultrafuel and get ready to head off into the darkness. I believe it was here that Tom Garrod seemed to appear out of the darkness, said Hi, checked his time and disappeared off again without stopping before I had time to offer him one of my mini salamis….

The night section of the run was fairly uneventful, with dawn breaking as I found myself on the approach to Henley. It was in the miles around Aston and on the final approach to Henley that my feet got wet for the first time in dew soaked grass. Fortunately I had given my feet a generous coating of Gurney Goo and Vaseline which seemed to prevent any ill effects at this point, although I suspect this may have started the softening of my feet which later came close to being my undoing.

After a brief stop at Henley, it was onward again toward Streatley where I intended to take a few hours out for a sleep. I believe it was along the way here that I found myself striding along with Richard Ebbs for a while, who was interested to chat about my Spitfire flight earlier in the year. After a while Richard was eager to run a bit but I was happy to carry on at a brisk walk so I left him to his own devices.

The next big landmark was Reading, which was busy with festival goers, once I had passed this, I had in mind the hill between Whitchurch and Goring, which last year had seemed steep and never ending – I was pleased to find this much easier this year, and once past the hills, just short of Streatley I broke into a reasonable run and finished the approach to Streatley in style (although was disappointed to find no one was taking photographs on the approach !), arriving a little before 3pm. It was particularly nice to get a big hug from Janine Lewis, who was there with tea and kind words when I dropped last year.

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Jerry just about to leave Checkpoint 4 (Photo by Paul Ali)

I was at this point feeling well and confident, and all was going to plan. I took the opportunity to boil up some water for a welcome dehydrated curry, and to slip into my bivvy bag in the paddock alongside a couple of other runners. Pulling my cap over my eyes, I went out like a light and slept soundly until around 5pm when Richard Ebbs woke me with the news that he was dropping out. Sad to hear Richard’s news, but feeling very refreshed, I packed up and was off again a little before 6pm. I was now heading for the only section of the path I had not previously travelled, the bit between Wallingford and Radley (I had been as far as Streatley last year, had run from Radley on T60, and had run the section from Streatley to Wallingford when at the T1 seminar earlier this year.

Passing through Wallingford I expected to be on familiar territory again soon, but was surprised to find how long it took to get past Abingdon and on to Sandford lock. By the time I got through Oxford and on to CP5 it was early morning. At the CP were a couple of other runners taking a break, including Lee Sutherland who looked a bit the worse for wear. I stopped only long enough to refill my water, take a snack and then pressed on.

By now I was starting to feel the effects of lack of sleep – although not feeling excessively tired, I was aware that my balance was less than perfect, but more notably the hallucinations were starting. Foliage picked up in the light of my headlamp took on the form of buildings, people and machinery. Nothing scary, and I was very conscious of what was happening. As day dawned, I found myself again running just ahead or behind Jane and Dave. As we got closer to Radcott, on several occasions I saw a clear and distinct bridge ahead on the river, which upon arrival proved to be entirely imaginary. Somewhere along the way the path was blocked by an entanglement of branches of a fallen tree which proved a challenge to climb through and I managed to fall on my backside from this but fortunately with no ill effect. Arriving at Radcott I stopped long enough to rehydrate a breakfast muesli, which was rank and sticky but helped keep up the calorific intake.

Off again ! As I embarked on this section it came to mind how different the route seemed in the light compared to when I had previously run this way in the darkness of T60. It was unrecognisable, and I could easily believe I had never run this route before. Passing Radcott had been a significant point in the journey – only one more checkpoint to pass in about 16 miles and then another 13 miles or so after that and finished. My estimate of timing was that I should be at the finish in the late evening, so I rang my wife who planned to come out with my brother and sister in law to see me at the finish and suggested they should expect me at about 8.00pm.

Somewhere along the way me feet had got wet again, I could hear a squishing noise from my Hoka’s, but had thought not much of it – I was aware of minor friction on my toes and had stopped earlier and re-treated by feet with Gurney Goo and put on clean socks, which had seemed to fix matters, but now I was beginning to feel a little discomfort, and my left foot, which has poor circulation due to an old injury, was beginning to feel chilled. Passing Lechlade, I had a sudden stabbing pain in the middle of the ball of my left foot, to the extent that I could hardly stand on it. I hobbled on a few yards to the footbridge just short of Inglesham and sat down to inspect the damage. At this point I thought it was game over….so near but so far.

Peeling off the sock, the foot was not a pretty site – serious trench foot, the whole sole white wrinkled and swollen. A voice behind me asked if I was OK. Lee Sutherland, who I had seen looking so bad back at Oxford had caught up. I gave him a few minutes of bleating about how I couldn’t carry on, and then he pointed out that I was almost there, just needed to put something on it and carry on. That was enough. He was right. Man up Jerry. On went some Vaseline, on went the socks and shoes and off we hobbled. Neither of us was in a state to travel at speed, but we were moving in the right direction.

We ambled along sharing our pain, and over the coming slow miles had quite a laugh comparing hallucinations. Eventually, somewhat later than expected, the CP at Castle Eaton came up.. Nearly there only about 13 miles to go ! It was now 5pm. After a quick stop and having been given new tracker units as our old units were showing as low batteries, we were off again. How hard could it be to get to the end by 10.30 and achieve our target of under 60 hours ?

Heading off into the lakes sections, it felt like we had found our way onto a never ending circular route, which also seemed to be continuously uphill. I was in desperate need to stop a moment to have a look at my feet – every few yards I saw a bench or seat, which of course turned out to be a plant or bush. Finally escaping the lakes it was now fully dark. It was also clear that we were travelling far slower than anticipated – at this point I called the wife to tell he not to bother meeting me, I would bivvy at the finish and see her in the morning. To add to the fun, it was raining. Also my head torch had failed, and the spare was no better, despite changing batteries in both. I ended up borrowing a small pocket torch from Lee which was a bit better.

Navigation in the dark in the last few miles is not easy. Exhaustion probably does not help. Around here we came across Jane and Dave again, who were travelling slowly and clearly suffering.

Finally, we were only a mile or so away from the finish. Crossing a road we found ourselves in a field, but were uncertain of the correct route. At one point Lee headed off to check out the route, while I stopped as I wanted to check the map, having developed a distrust of his GPS. Communication is a wonderful thing – when I works. I was convinced Lee had headed in the wrong direction and would be back in a few minutes. He was convinced I had stopped momentarily and was following him. By the time I looked up, he had vanished. Calling out for him was no help, and I became convinced he had fallen and was lying injured somewhere.

At about this time my phone rang – It was my wife, Leslie, who had seen on the tracker I was nearly at the end, and had come out to meet my after all with my brother, sister in law and dog, and they were already at the stone. I explained what was going on, and asked if they could see Lee on the tracker. It appeared he had finished, but I suspected this may be a result of the change of trackers at the last checkpoint giving a false result. After various to-ing and fro-ing on the phone, I spoke with Shane Benzie, who was able to tell me the Lee had finished safely, and offered to come out along the route and to meet up with me for the final run in, which I gratefully accepted.

Shortly after, Shane appeared, and we walked in the final mile or so. Coming over the final hill top, I could see the lights of the tent by the stone. A short distance out, Shane left me to go on ahead and finish on my own. Despite the pain in my feet, my legs were still surprisingly fresh, and I managed to put in quite a spurt for the final leg, spurred on by the wife’s voice from ahead urging me to “Get a F******g move on”

Arriving at the stone was emotional. Leslie had been given my medal to put round my neck, and our little dog Toby was dancing around my legs. It was wonderful to have them and my brother Tom and sister in law Judy there to share the moment.

2015 T184 Photos Jerry Hunter 03

Finished!

Lee had arrived about an hour and a half ahead of me. Jane and Dave had also passed and arrived about 20 minutes ahead – they were just starting to walk back up to the Thames head pub. After a few photos’, we set off up the hill as well, catching up with Jane and Dave along the way who looked well done in.

My final time was 62:45 – I had previously said I would be pleased with 60 to 65 hours, and a finish within the cut off would be fine, so mission accomplished.

Did my experience of 2014 prepare me to succeed in 2015 ?

In many ways yes, although I was not prepared for the level of foot pain.

Did it go to plan?

Mostly. Yes, in particular I managed to maintain a sensible pace for most of the race and good rate of intake of food, and did not at any time feel short of energy or that I had overeaten. Hydration went well. If the foot issues had not arisen, I would anticipate that I could have finished faster and probably in the light which would have overcome much of the navigation problem at the end.

Would I do it again ?

Probably, but next year I will be helping out at checkpoints for T series races, and have other projects in mind.

Would I recommend it ?

Hell yes. You will go a long way to find anything as challenging, but also with fantastic support, and you will meet some terrific people. You may cry. You will certainly laugh at times. You might finish.