2015 T184 CHALLENGE REPORT BY MARK DENBY

Introduction / Strategy

They say that most ultra-runners are obsessive and / or have some form of OCD so I’m assuming I’m amongst friends here and make no apologies for what’s below.

Always remember that everyone is different and what works for me might not be what works for you.

My strategy was to go for speed and tackle the race as ‘just a big 100’ – no stopping and no sleep. The quicker it was over, the less likely I was to become miserable. Never having run further than 100 miles before (not counting getting lost on 100 courses) this was a risk but I reckoned if I got some hours in the bank by running a solid 100 at the start, I’d just wing the rest.

I love running and walking. On a sunny day, there is nowhere I’d rather be than travelling on 2 legs through beautiful countryside. If I could see the whole race as just this (having fun and doing exactly what I wanted to be doing) then completion was a no-brainer. I run faster when I’m happy; if I could stay happy as well I should be able to get a decent time.

This was the critical part of the strategy – be happy. If I could achieve this, everything else would take care of itself.

Doubt, uncertainty and unforeseen circumstances will zap your mental energy and cause stress during the race. The more doubt and uncertainty you can eliminate, the more mental energy you’ll have for being happy, positive, relaxed and enjoying the experience.

Everything else below has this as its focus – stay happy and relaxed during the race by eliminating all sources of stress, doubt and uncertainty.

T184 vs Other Races

The big difference between T184 un-supported and a more traditional supported race is that T184 will punish you mercilessly for failing to plan.

On a normal ultra, you can put the kitchen sink in your drop bag, buy some fish ‘n’ chips for lunch, have your mates bring you supplies and do a bit of shopping on the way round.

Not so on T184; if it’s not in your pack when you cross the start line, you’re going to have to do without it. And if it is in your pack when you cross the start line, you’re going to have to carry it for 184 miles (or eat it or bin it)!

T184 is a planner’s race.

I see something like T184 as a huge challenge. I can ease the burden of that challenge by doing work up-front and leaving my brain free on race day to deal with all stuff that I hadn’t been able to predict. I also don’t trust my brain, it gets tired very easily and starts making mistakes when under pressure; do the thinking up front when you’re nice and warm at home and have got all the time in the world.

Physical Training

They say that in an ultra you run the first 50 miles on your legs and the rest in your head. With something like T184 that’s an awful lot of miles in your head but still only 50 on the ground. I think’s a pretty fare assessment of how you should target your training for T184 – 50:134 physical to non-physical training (some might call it preparation).

I’m not going to say anything about how to physically train for any ultra as there’s so much out there by people who are far better qualified.

I did run both T-60 and Centurion Running TP100 and these were both of huge help as I got to race the majority of the course, however I hadn’t sorted out my kit at this stage so they were run weightless.

For me, the only difference to any standard training I would do for 100 miler was the pack.

Do not fall into the trap of thinking that you’re physically fit / strong, you have no problem carrying the pack when casually walking, therefore running with it will just slow you down a bit.

I made this mistake on the Spine Challenger and it’s not one I’ll be making again.

The weight of your pack makes a huge difference to your gait. Training at your race gait will strengthen the muscles required to support it. For example I run more fore-footed when carrying weight and therefore my training has strengthened the muscles in my lower legs and feet needed to do this. Without the pack this wouldn’t have happened. When I ran the Spine Challenger this hadn’t happened and my feet swelled from the abuse; this also then caused them to blister.

On the feet, skin toughens and becomes resistant to blisters over time and with movement. If you change your gait, you are likely to develop blisters on new surfaces until the skin develops its resilience. You don’t want to go through this on race day or even shortly before. Training with the pack will give your feet time to adapt to the new gait and become more resistant to blisters.

Note also that it’s not just ‘a heavy pack’, different weight can have different changes so you should try get as close to you intended pack weight as possible.

As a further example, I’d done all my training with my intended pack (including 2x750ml water bottles on the front). For a period of 3 days I did my daily run without the bottles on the front (but with the weight compensated for in the main pack). This gave me blisters on the rear of my foot that I’ve never had before with my intended shoe and sock combination.

If my training tired me, I would do less, but I would never take off the pack. All training for months before the race was done with my pack. You really want your body to forget what its like to run without the pack; it’s irrelevant.

Wearing the pack should feel like the default option. By the time my physical training was coming to and end my performances with the pack were pretty much as they had been without the pack 6 months earlier; I’d trained away the weight and was just about running normally.

Pack

Obsess over weight. This isn’t just about stripping back your kit; 10-12kg may well be the weight that you need to support your race strategy. However, for every piece of kit, you should know:

What is it

What is it used for (including circumstances)

How much does it weigh

What’s the risk of not having it

As an example, there’s nothing wrong with taking 7 pairs of socks and planning to change them at each CP. If that lovely feeling of warm fresh feet gives your running a real boost both physically and mentally, and you’re happy to carry the weight associated with that boost, go for it – be happy! What you don’t want to do is randomly stick in 7 pairs of socks ‘just in case’. Whilst I’m sure they will enjoy the 184 mile journey, they are likely to come back with you unused.

If you stick it all in Excel you can have hours of fun playing fantasy kit packing (“those two pairs of socks have just cost me a protein bar!”).

For reference, here’s my final kit list:

Item Backpack
Pack + Attached To
UD Fastpack 20 525g
Raidlight water bottle + water 856g
Raidlight water bottle + water + water filter 838g
Silva Rangers Compass (current) 35g
Garmin Oregon 600 (with 2xAA Lithium) 205g
Thames Path Harvey Map 75g
Rab Survival Zone Bivi 400g
Hydrapak 750ml bottle 70g
Drugs (Ibuprophen, anti-histamine, caffeine) 36g
Electrolytes (Elete) 36g
CAT 100B Waterproof Phone 175g
iPod + headphones 100g
Eagle Creek event wallet + cash, cards and coins 40g
Tissues 50g
Nutrition
Nutrition 1,949g
Electrical / Medical (Green Bag)
14 x Lithium batteries 220g
Petzl MYO RXP (with 3xAA Lithium) 150g
Inova X1 LED Flashlight (no battery) 38g
Medical kit 3 75g
Scissor multitool 40g
Emergency blanket 50g
Clothing (Yellow Bag)
Inov-8 RaceElite 150 150g
Inov-8 Race Elite Pants 165g
Inov-8 Race Glove 32g
Inov-8 Wrag 34g
Inov-8 Race Skull 25g
Drymax Trail Running Socks Medium v5.5 60g
Mizuno Breath Thermo Mid 146g
Inov-8 Baselite 175 166g
TOTAL 6,666g

I actually came in at 6.8kg after chucking in some random junk at the end. When I started planning I was at 11kg .

My goal was speed and hence my strategy was to go as light as possible. For example, I ditched the hot food (more on this below) but don’t underestimate the restorative powers of a hot cup of soup or re-hydrated curry at 3am on a cold windy night.

I also ditched my walking poles for the sake of weight. These poles had helped me massively on other events and I was reluctant to give them up. Poles are great when your legs are completely mashed or when you’ve got steep gradients to negotiate. However, my plans didn’t involve either of these scenarios. I was going to try and run (or at least jog) all the way to the end. I did a lot of testing along the Regent’s canal and the poles were just a hindrance until about 3mph; I wasn’t planning to travel that slowly so they had to go.

It’s weight that matters not size. Make sure you’ve got plenty of extra space in your pack. We all know that luggage expands over time. You don’t want to waste valuable time trying to cram stuff back every time you access it. A bigger pack is unlikely to weight much more.

Hydration

Water is not just weight, it’s essential for your wellbeing. That said, water is seriously heavy stuff and you need to give it a lot of consideration.

Imagine if you complete the event and always have a minimum of 1 litre of water sloshing around somewhere. That’s 1kg of weight you’ve carried unnecessarily for 184 miles – think how may extra pairs of socks you could have taken instead!

I must, however, stress that I’m not advising anyone to take unnecessary risks with their hydration. A hydrated runner with an extra 1kg pack is going to be far more successful than a dehydrated runner with a lighter pack.

For me, there were too main and closely linked questions:

How much water do I actually need to carry on my person at any given time?

Where can I get water from?

From experience I believed I should be able to survive on 2x750ml bottles (one pure water, the other with electrolytes, carbs etc) topped up every 15 miles and drinking a good and sensible amount at the CP (avoiding carrying it with me). Obviously I met the mandatory equipment rules and had the ability to carry 2+litres (and that could have been necessary had it got seriously hot).

The checkpoints on T184 are roughly every 30 miles; too far for me, so I identified intermediate water stops and had my own mini-checkpoints. (Reaching a checkpoint is great mental boost so I decided to have some extra ones!)

Checkpoint (v0.7) Split Total
CP 0 (Water stop) 14.0 14.0
CP 1 (Beehive, Brentford) 12.7 26.7
Sunbury Lock (Just past lock on left) 14.3 41.0
CP 2 (Bells of Ouzeley) 12.7 53.7
Tap 7 (On brick building behind church) 14.6 68.3
CP 3 (Anchor of Henley) 13.2 81.4
Tap 12 (Corner of activity centre) 15.4 96.8
CP 4 (The Swan, Streatley) 4.6 101.4
Tap 15 (No notes) 15.0 116.4
CP 5 (The Punter, Oxford) 14.5 130.9
Northmoor Lock (No notes) 11.9 142.8
CP 6 (The Swan, Bampton) 12.4 155.2
CP 7 (Red Lion Inn, Castle Eaton) 13.1 168.3
Finish (The stone!) 16.8 185.0

I also recced and produced a full list of water access points for the first 130 miles (which I took with me). If it was hot I knew exactly where I would be able to top-up.

Just because a lock is advertised as having access to drinking water, this does not mean either that it’s conveniently accessible to non-boat crews or that you’ll actually be able to find it.

As with all the stuff here this comes with no guarantees and may not be comprehensive, but this is my list:

Water Point Split Total Exists? Comments
T184 CP0 Water Stop 12.3 12.3 1
T184 Bishops Park 7.2 19.5 1 Stand-pipe towards the park exit
T184 Corney Reach Way 2.7 22.2 1
T184 Rowing Club 0.6 22.8 1
T184 Dukes Meadow 1.0 23.8 1
T184 Chiswick Quay 0.4 24.2 1
T184 Boat Club 0.8 25 1
T184 CP 1 Beehive, Brentford 1.7 26.7 1
T184 Teddington Lock 6.1 32.8 0 No access to lock from this side of river
T184 Molesey Lock 5.0 37.8 0 Tap on other side of lock – access difficult
T184 Sunbury Lock 3.2 41 1 Just past lock on left
T184 Shepperton Lock 3.8 44.8 1 Toilets only – £1
T184 Chertsey Lock 1.9 46.7 0 Boat crews only – other side of lock
T184 Penton Hook Lock 2.0 48.7 1 Cupboard on right of lock
T184 CP 2 Bells of Ouzeley 5.0 53.7 1
T184 Old Windsor Lock 0.8 54.5 0 No obvious access
T184 Romney Lock 3.5 58 1 Tap on slipway of boatyard
T184 Boveney Lock 2.3 60.3 0 No obvious access
T184 Bray Lock 3.1 63.4 0 No obvious access
T184 Boulters Lock 2.4 65.8 0 No convenient access
T184 Tap 7 2.6 68.4 1 Corner of brick building behind church
T184 Tap 8 1.3 69.7 1 Far wall of sailing club
T184 Marlow Lock 2.3 72 0 Don’t even remember the lock
T184 Temple Lock 2.0 74 1 Over the lock on left, follow sign
T184 Hurley Lock 0.8 74.8 1 On right after toilets
T184 Tap 9 0.5 75.3 1 On gatepost between fields
T184 Tap 10 5.0 80.3 1 Upper Thames Rowing Club – far side of building
T184 CP 3 Henley 1.1 81.4 1
T184 Shiplake Lock 2.7 84.1 0 Can find in notes
T184 Tap 11 0.7 84.8 1 Corner of Shiplake College Clubhouse (before bridge)
T184 Mapledurham Lock 9.8 94.6 1 Free toilets, tap on right after lock – no water
T184 Tap 12 2.3 96.9 1 Corner of activity centre after entering carpark
T184 Goring Lock 4.2 101.1 0 Close to checkpoint
T184 CP 4 Goring 0.3 101.4 1
T184 Cleeve Lock 0.7 102.1
T184 Tap 13 1.9 104 1 Back wall of Beetle and Wedge
T184 Tap 14 6.0 110 1 Variety of taps along moorings
T184 Tap 15 7.0 117 1 No notes – can’t remember but it did exist
T184 Culham Lock 2.2 119.2 0 No water
T184 Abingdon Lock 2.5 121.7 1 Tap is past bridge on right – detour
T184 Tap 16 3.3 125 1 Middle of boathouse wall
T184 Osney Lock 5.9 130.9 0
T184 CP 5 Oxford 0.0 130.9 1
T184 Kings Lock 3.5 134.4
T184 Eynsham Lock 2.7 137.1
T184 Pinkhill Lock 1.5 138.6
T184 Northmoor Lock 4.2 142.8
T184 Rushey Lock 9.1 151.9
T184 Radcot Lock 2.5 154.4
T184 CP 6 Bampton 0.8 155.2 1
T184 St Johns Lock 5.0 160.2
T184 CP 7 Castle Eaton 8.1 168.3 1
T184 FINISH 16.7 185
TOTALS / AVERAGES 185

There’s a GPS file attached than contains all these details. For symbols, a tap is a tap, a toilet is a toilet and a tent is a tap and a toilet.

And here’s the official British Waterways list (remember the focus of this list is boat crews – don’t make assumptions):

Location Grid Toilet Accessible
Toilet
Drinking
Water Point
Cricklade, off High Street SU100937 Yes Yes
Lechlade, Oak Street (A361) SU215997 Yes Yes
Lechlade, St John’s Lock SU222990 Yes Yes
Buscot SU231976 Yes
Grafton Lock SU272993 Yes
Radcot Lock SP292002 Yes Yes
Rushey Lock SP323001 Yes Yes Yes
Shifford Lock SP371010 Yes
Northmoor Lock SP432021 Yes Yes
Pinkhill Lock SP441072 Yes Yes
Eynsham Lock SP445086 Yes Yes Yes
Kings Lock SP479103 Yes
Wolvercote (car park Godstow Road) SP487095 Yes
Oxford Several Yes
Osney Lock SP503059 Yes
Abingdon Lock SU506971 Yes
Abingdon, Hales Meadow car park, downstream side of bridge SU500967 Yes Yes
Culham Lock SU507949 Yes Yes
Clifton Lock SU 547947 Yes
Dorchester (Bridge End) SU578940 Yes
Benson Lock SU 613913 Yes
Wallingford, Cattle Market car park, Wood Street SU608893 Yes Yes
Wallingford Riverside (April-September) SU612896 Yes Yes
Cleeve Lock SU601818 Yes Yes
Goring Lock SU598809 Yes
Goring-on-Thames car park SU599807 Yes Yes
Pangbourne, River Meadow car park SU636767 Yes Yes
Mapledurham Lock SU667768 Yes Yes
Reading Various Yes Yes
Sonning Lock SU753755 Yes
Shiplake Lock SU776787 Yes Yes
Henley on Thames, Mill Meadows SU766822 Yes Yes
Mill End car park, south of Hambleden – cross the river via Hambleden Lock SU785855 Yes Yes
Hurley Lock SU826843 Yes Yes Yes
Temple Lock SU837844 Yes Yes
Marlow, Higginson Park SU850863 Yes Yes
Marlow Lock SU855860 Yes Yes
Bourne End, Wakeman Road car park SU895874 Yes Yes
Cookham, Sutton Road car park SU897853 Yes
Maidenhead, various inc. Ray Mill Island – cross river at Boulter’s Lock SU903826 Yes Yes Yes
Bray Lock SU798910 Yes
Boveney Lock SU778945 Yes Yes
Eton Court car park SU967774 Yes Yes
Eton Riverside Station SU968773 Yes
Windsor Various Yes Yes
Romney Lock SU970776 Yes Yes
Old Windsor Lock SU995747 Yes Yes
Runnymede Pleasure Grounds TQ007724 Yes Yes
Bell Weir Lock TQ017721 Yes
Staines Various Yes Yes
Penton Hook Lock TQ044695 Yes Yes
Laleham Park, Thameside TQ053677 Yes Yes
Chertsey Lock TQ054668 Yes
Shepperton Lock TQ072660 Yes Yes Yes
Walton Bridge TQ094664 Yes Yes
Sunbury Lock TQ109685 Yes Yes
Molesey Lock TQ153686 Yes Yes
Kingston-upon-Thames Various Yes Yes
Teddington Lock TQ166716 Yes Yes

Bladders vs Bottles

I’m not a fan of bladders for several reasons:

it’s very difficult to tell how much you’re drinking / have drunk

filling them is always a pain (and often involves pouring water into your pack)

it’s very difficult to drink quickly

I also find the weight of the bottles on the front of the pack gives a nice balance.

Water Filter

This worked brilliantly for me even though I never actually used it.

The Sawyer water filter (http://sawyereurope.com/sp128) had been mentioned on the T1 training even and I decided to give it a go.

The first point of note about this filter is a perfect demonstration of the importance of planning and testing every aspect of your kit.

The filter comes with a handy plastic bag that allows you to squeeze the water through the filter and into your mouth. There is, however, a major problem: it is impossible to fill the bag by dipping it into a body of water. From a tap or a waterfall, no problem, but on its own the laws of physics just aren’t going allow that bag to fill.

To get over this, I mounted my filter inside a 750ml ridged water bottle (spliced it into the internal tube of a Raidlight bottle). The bottle can easily be filled by dipping into the Thames. There’s no issue in drinking tap water from this bottle, the filter just passes it straight through. I also understand that electrolytes pass through the filter unchallenged and causing no damage.

Another important thing I learned from recceing and testing is that whilst you may be able to see the Thames, that’s very different from being able to reach it (particularly if your legs are quite as flexible as they once were). Whilst it’s not a foolproof approach, the presence of fishermen seems to be a good indication of easy access points.

If you intend to take this approach, as with everything else, make sure you test it. If you’re going to get it wrong and make yourself ill, get it out of the way well before race day. I’ve successfully managed to drink some particularly unappetizing looking water from various sections of the Thames (but don’t take my word for it!). However, on my first test I, did manage to contaminate the clear drinking tube with the unclean water from the bottle.

Why was the filter so great if I didn’t even use it? Because it eliminated doubt and uncertainty. I knew that if my water strategy failed in any way, or it just got too hot, I had tried and tested access to a limitless supply.

Nutrition

One thing to remember here is that I was aiming for my race to be relatively short. I could afford to build up a bit of nutritional debt as it wasn’t going to be for long (minimal impact on my performance and mood). If I’d been planning to be out there for 70-80 hours I would do this very differently.

My back of a fag packet calculation said that if I run with a pack I will burn approx. 100 calories per mile, call it 18,000 calories. 8000 in, that’s roughly 10,000 calories or 1-1.5kg of fat that will get burned.

If your pack is heavier or you run less efficiently (as you do when you tire), that kg figure for burned fat could up. If, like me, your on the lean side, it can be well worth considering putting on a couple of kg through eating additional good quality food in the weeks leading up to the event. My theory is that my weight is pretty stable and I consider myself healthy. Therefore it’s best to provide it with a bit of extra fat it won’t mind loosing, prior to the race, rather than having to dip into what I would be looking to replace after the race. I know nothing about the science here but it allowed me to eat lots in the weeks before the race as well as after!

(I’m currently 3kg lighter than I was before the race but some of that will be dehydration).

Train with your food on recces. I once found (on race day) that the raspberry seeds in my water concoction didn’t pass though nozzle of the bottle I’d decided to change at the last minute. Test everything.

Hot vs Cold

I looked at self-heating meals but for me they were expensive (£5-6 per meal and I was planning to bin what I didn’t eat) and they were heavy (300g for just 350 calories).

Freeze-dried meals (add boiling water and wait 5-8 minutes) were much better. 194g for 1000 calories – that’s one fifth of the weight of the self-heating variety. Cost per meal is about the same (but 2-3 times the number of calories) but they do require a stove.

I also happen to think that some of the freeze-dried stuff tastes quite good. Once you’ve made the investment in carrying the stove you can then also have tea, soup, chocolate etc.

I think 48 hours without hot food or drinks is do-able; beyond that and I would probably take the stove. My Jetboil + gas comes in at 550g. There are options that are lighter than the Jetboil but the Jetboil is very easy to use (and bear in mind your brain probably won’t be working too well when you come to try to use it).

Some useful comparisons for achieving 8,000 calories:

Weight Item
1.4kg Peanuts
2.2kg Energy / protein bars
2.2kg Freeze dried meals (1.6kg) + stove (0.6kg)
6.8kg Self heating meals

What I did

Much as I was looking forward to those comforting pasta meals and tasty curries, sitting down with my stove and brewing a cup of tea really wasn’t in line with my race strategy. I’d be lighter and quicker if I stuck to just cold food. I also knew that the further into the race I got the lighter I would appreciate the pack being and I wouldn’t be able to eat the stove. That would be 550g that was with me until the end.

Given that I hate eating everything, this made decisions nice and easy – calorie to weight ratio was king. I also had my doubts about getting through 8,000 calories so anything that didn’t get eaten according to schedule was going in the bin so cost was also a consideration.

Initially I assumed that best way to find high calorie food would be to look at the usual energy bars, protein bars and gels. However, if you’re just interested in calories per gram then your local supermarket confectionary shelf is the place to look. Some healthy looking breakfast bars can pack far more bang per gram that specifically designed energy bars.

Dry roasted peanuts (which I do rather like) come in at 5.8 cals per gram; milk chocolate (again, something I can force down and hence better than nothing) weights in at 5.1 cals per gram. The average for a couple of popular energy bars was just 3.6. cals per gram.

You need to take food that you think you will be able to eat.

My final nutrition was this:

Item Weight kCal Ratio # Weight kCal Details
Gel + caffeine 32g 100 3.13 7 224g 700
Powders 40g 130 3.25 14 560g 1820 50 / 50 mix
Soylent serving 40g 174 4.36 14 560g 2440 50 / 50 mix
KP Dry Roasted Peanuts 300g 1782 5.94 1 300g 1782 8 mini bags
Snickers 48g 245 5.10 1 48g 245
Chia Charge Protein Bar 50g 204 4.08 1 50g 204
Eat Natural Apricot & Yoghurt 50g 231 4.62 3 150g 693
Bounty 57g 139 2.44 1 57g 139
TOTAL 1949 8023

Being very bad at eating during races, I opted to drink a lot of my nutrition.

I had a Soylent / powder mix in one water bottle at each of my 14 checkpoints and had either a chocolate bar or gel in the second half of each leg (gels towards real checkpoints and bars towards on the way to taps). The peanuts got eaten as and when I needed a boost.

The powders were a 4:1 carb:protein mix of  2:1 maltodextrin/fructose and soy protein.

Soylent is a complete meal replacement solution which you can read about here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soylent_(drink) This was a bit of a long shot for me, I’d read about it and it seemed like a good idea. I did lots of testing and nothing bad happened.

I planned exactly what to eat when. Eating was never going to be a pleasure and a constant supply of calories was essential. Following a plan meant I could look forward to meal times, I could pack effectively by checkpoint and I could bin any items that weren’t being eaten according to schedule.

What did surprise me was that, with the exception of 3 small bags of nuts, I consumed the lot.

Clothing

The mandatory kit list has pretty much got this covered.

Don’t under estimate the ability to change your temperature through the use of a hat, a neck wrag and gloves. These are light, easy to have to hand and easy to take on and off. You can use these until it’s necessary to stop and deploy a big ticket item like a long sleeved top.

As I was planning to be running for the duration, I didn’t need much to keep me warm. I was happy to run in shorts regardless of nighttime temperatures and had two lightweight but warm long sleeved tops. Full waterproofs are great at keeping out the cold and the wind if things get realty bad.

If you have wet kit and the weather is warm and sunny, get it drying on the pack of your pack. It will be lighter when it’s dry and you might just want to re-wear it.

Understand your materials and make sure that if you’re using thermal layers they work in the wet.

Make sure your packing strategy allows you to keep wet and dry clothes separate.

Sleep

Experience had shown me that I could run through 2 nights without needed to stop. If I really got this right, I’d only have to do one night so no sleep.

This had another advantage; I now just needed to take a bivy bag, no sleeping bag, ground mats etc.

This theory didn’t quite work out and I did end up having a 30 minute nap at one stage. One thing this did teach me was that it can be a lot more convenient to sleep during the day. On a sunny day, you can do as I did and just zonk out in a field, no need to change, no need for bag, mats etc and you feel more secure than you would at night.

Shoes / Feet

I wore the same Inov-8 Roclite 295s that I run most of my long distances in. They offer a medium level of cushioning and support. I had no idea what else I could wear so I stuck to these and they were fine.

184 miles is a really long way and during training I realized that I’d already done a significant amount of training miles in the shoes I intended to race in. Adding another 184 miles was taking them very close to (if not beyond) the point at which they would begin to breakdown.

New shoes: same make and model as the previous version to reduce change (gait, blisters) and worn for 50 miles or so. Enough to ensure no manufacturing defects but trying to ensure they got nowhere near their breaking point despite the pounding they were about to receive.

I use DryMax trail running socks for most races and even in the wet they keep my feet comfortable and dry, however, over 24 hours in the wet and I can start to blister. DryMax do not recommend using lubricants with their socks and when I have tried it has made blisters worse not better.

After hearing about Gurney Goo on the T1 training event, I had got myself a tube and had been experimenting. My toes were my main area of concern and Gurney Gooing them whilst leaving the rest of the foot alone seemed to work well in combination with the DryMax socks.

There were many things wrong with me by the end of this race, but I did not get a single blister on my feet!

Batteries

You will have equipment that uses batteries (head torch, GPS) and you’re going to need to know how long a set of batteries will last and hence how many spare ones you need to take with you.

There is only one way to know how long a set of batteries will last and that’s by testing. Yes, this does involve ‘wasting’ batteries but without it, you’re either going to end up with too much weight or DNFing because your headtorch fails and you have no more spare batteries.

There are no shops on T184; battery failure is race failure.

Batteries are not all equal. This site is excellent: http://www.batteryshowdown.com/results-lo.html

I opted for Energizer Ultimate Lithium as they have a superb battery life (22 hours for my GPS and 20 hours for my head torch), they are light, any they are by no means top of the cost list.

I overstocked on batteries returning with 10 unused.

Note: If you see batteries (particularly the more expensive ones such as Energizer Ultimate Lithium) on sale at your favorite online retailer at a price that looks too good to be true, it probably is. Always test (drain to empty) at least one set of batteries from a supplier. If you really want to play safe, buy your race batteries from a major supermarket chain (you pay a premium, but they tend to be genuine and they tend to be fresh).

Navigation

Being on the wrong side of the river is a killer on the Thames Path (there are often perfectly valid footpaths on both sides of the Thames). Know your river crossings, mark them on your maps, set proximity alarms on your GPS, look at them on Google Earth and recce.

Signage on the Thames Path is pretty good although occasionally signs have become obscured by foliage. This cannot be said for the London section. There are a lot of twists and turns, signs disappear and signs get rotated. New developments pop-up overnight. The worst section is the start to the Embankment at Blackfriars. It’s worth recceing this section as close to race day as possible (and more than once if you can).

Recces

For the last few year’s I’ve done the LDWA (Long Distance Walkers Association) annual 100. I choose not to recce these events; they are non-competitive and part of the fun is getting out there on the day, exploring the route description and, of course, becoming ‘navigationally embarrassed’ and recovering.

If, however, you intend to race for a time, we’re back to eliminating doubt and uncertainty and the best way to do this is to recce. If you are unable to recce a section, use maps, Google Earth, Google Streetview or even just your imagination.

If at all possible, you should recce at the same time of day as you expect to be at a given location on race day. If you’re not sure, do it in both the night and the day.

As an example, I’ve run W100 and TP100; both these events pass through Pangbourne at night and I’m confident I know the route. I recently did a recce during the day and got completely lost. All of a sudden, in the daylight, a path I’d taken many times in the dark looked like someone’s private driveway and I convinced myself it had to be wrong.

I live in central London and I love to run at dawn; it’s quiet, calm and you can have this magnificent city almost to yourself. I realized, however, that there is no point in recceing for T184 at dawn. You’re going to pass through Westminster at peak tourist rush-hour and you need to know what that’s like.

If you hit those crowds for the first time on race day the experience will be a bit of a surprise and hence stress. I knew this section would be painful. I also knew there was nothing I could do about it, it stayed happy, relaxed and let events unfold as I expected them (running the gauntlet of selfie-sticks, being 6 deep at pelican crossings and taking two light sequences to actually get across the road).

Always recce in the race direction and not backwards. Things can look very different when approached from the other direction. If you go wrong on a recce, repeat that section and give yourself a good 100 yards run up to the problem turn, you want your brain to remember what ‘right’ looks like, not ‘wrong’ or ‘in reverse’.

If you have a specific race speed or range in mind for a section, recce it at that speed and make sure it’s sensible for the environment (tourist slow you down, you run comfortably at different speeds on different surfaces) as well as being sustainable in the context of the full event. If you get tired on a recce something (pack weight, pace, physical fitness) needs to change.

Maps / GPS

I love my GPS but it adds weight and chews batteries. However, it’s great for whipping out and checking that that little blue arrow is still sat on top of the pink trail that you’re trying to follow.

Maps, however, give a much more satisfying experience. The map gives you a context of where you are that a tiny GPS screen does not. For example “I’ve left Henley, the next major town is Reading, following a long left curve in the river, big section in 5 miles time where I won’t be running along side the river.”. You’re much less likely to get lost if you have a true appreciation of where you are (or should be).

My strategy for this one (which worked well) was to use maps for recces with the intention of being able to run the route solely from memory and way markers / signage on the day (with GPS for validation and physical maps as a backup).

As an approach it worked well. I ran London pretty much from memory, the rest from memory and signage. I did a lot of validating, particularly on the later sections. And must admit to navigating the waterpark entirely by GPS (it just all looks the same in the dark, there are so many turns and your brain is pretty tired by this stage).

GPSs don’t like water! They may be waterproof on the outside but if you end up changing batteries in the wet you can easily kill the thing. Plan – know how long you expect batteries to last, and be prepared to change them in the dry at a checkpoint and before you need to.

A further note of caution, GPSs are great for telling you that you’re roughly where you’re supposed to be, however, they are not 100% accurate, neither are the GPX files that are often provided. This is particularly relevant for the Thames as I discovered on TP100. Something didn’t quite seem right just after Abingdon; I checked my GPS and it told me as I roughly in the right place – yes, only about 100ft from where I should be, unfortunately I was now 2 miles on from the lock (on the wrong side of the river as you may have guessed) and that 100ft was full of Thames!

Map Cases

Waterproof map cases are great at keeping water out; unfortunately, they are also great at keeping water in. If you open the case in the rain, water will get in. If the maps aren’t waterproof it’s going to go horribly wrong; if the maps are waterproof you just need a map holder (I use a race number holder and hole-punch the maps).

Checkpoints

Taking your pack off is always a hassle and it costs time. I try to arrange my kit so I only have to take the pack off for major events such as dawn and dusk. At these points you replenish your accessible food, change batteries, swap head torch for hat, change clothing etc. Plan it and get it all over with in one go!

Now try to roughly align checkpoints to dawn and dusk. For example, I was confident I could make it to CP2 before dusk but not CP3, so food up to CP2 in outside pockets, separate CP2 bag inside with food, headtorch, batteries etc for the next legs (until dawn).

You should have a plan as to exactly what to do at each checkpoint. You can easily burn a lot of time on nothing in particular when you’re tired and unfocused. You’re also far more likely to forget something or get something wrong if you’re running unscripted.

Pacing

It should go without saying that your pacing should be relaxed and sustainable. If you’re out of breath by CP1 then the rest of the race isn’t going to go well.

That said, I would not plan of saving up energy for later. “Make hay while the sun shines”. If you can run in a relaxed and sustainable way then do it, you might not get another chance later. After 50 miles it’s far more about what’s in your head than the state of your legs; it will come and go in waves so just go as fast as you can.

Study the results from previous years. Use sites like DUV (http://statistik.d-u-v.org/getresultevent.php?event=20196) to understand the past performances of the competitors. See how you compare to them and hence what you would expect your splits to be for the various sections.

How do participants slow down over time? If it happens to them then chances are it’s going to happen to you too. Expect it.

Work out what time of day you will be passing through each section. If checkpoint 3 is going to be reached in the middle of the night, what is it going to look like and how are you going to find it? Rehearse it in your mind, eliminate doubt and uncertainty.

Use your training and your recces to prove to yourself that your anticipated pace for any given section is comfortable, sustainable and achievable. Here you’re eliminating doubt and uncertainty over your potential performance. This should be a huge source of positive mental energy: knowing, believing and proving that your goals are realistic.

I didn’t aim to run the race to any given pace. I had a pacing chart with me, however, I saw this as just a lookup table. It told me roughly what time I could expect to finish based on times and paces of various legs. The important thing was to get to the finish as quickly, as energy efficiently and as happily as possible.

So…did it all work? / Race Report

The simple answer is no; the first half was great and went exactly according to plan and then it all fell apart at Oxford (for reasons I don’t really understand) and I had a fairly miserable second half.

Here’s the long version:

The race started at 10:35. I was expecting there to be a lead group heading off at 8-9 minute miles, at least in the first instance. I, however, appeared to be the only person considering such a start so, after the first kink in the first tunnel, I headed off. I remained convinced that there were others directly behind me all the way to the London water stop and beyond (it wasn’t until CP2 when I dared to ask). It didn’t matter where anyone one was; I was running my race at my pace and everything else would take care of itself.

I managed to do the entire London section from memory without getting lost (which was a relief). The weather was warm and sunny but not hot. The pace I determined as being most energy efficient and sustainable was nicely within the range I was expecting. Even the crowds at Westminster seemed to be on their best behavior. Nothing else of note that I can remember from that first section. Made it to the water stop, topped up and headed off.

My strategy was just to run at a comfortable and sustainable pace (whatever that turned out to be), confident that my physical training would make it more than acceptable. During the next leg to Brentford, that happy pace seemed to be falling and I found myself having to push to keep under 9’00 miles. Eventually I became suspicious of my footpod misreading my pace; I was going a lot faster than it was reporting, I was sure.

It had done this to me a couple of weeks back and I stupidly had neither changed the battery no brought a spare with me. At CP1, therefore, I killed the footpod and restarted my watch.

2015 T184 Mark Denby 01

Mark at Checkpoint 1 with RD Shane

I was using laps to count off checkpoints and had built a simple app that told me how long in time it was until the next checkpoint based on distance of this lap vs overall average speed. This was working well and nice info to have but I must have cocked up the lap count when I restarted after killing the footpod.

I had the watch set to use the GPS every 60 secs in order to get 50+ hours battery life. At this level of accuracy the current pace was not longer of any real use, but time to next CP and average pace per lap (leg) were good info to have.

I didn’t let any of this get to me and just got on with it and enjoyed a lovely summer’s day on the Thames. I just don’t have very good stats to show for it!

I remember hitting CP2 (The Bells at Ouseley) as dusk was approaching and changing over to my night gear. This was when I first asked where my nearest competitor was and discovered that they were a good couple of hours behind now.

When I hit Henley I was greeted on the bridge by the guys from Summit Fever Media (they were filming for this event as the did the Spine earlier in the year). They lead me over the bridge to the ‘checkpoint’ which was two large containers of water on the footpath and a jacket that they thought was mine but wasn’t; this was located just at the bottom of the road on which the Anchor stands. I was relieved they had come to meet me as there had been a change to this CP; rather than being at the Anchor they had apparently got permission to use what sounded like the park further down but I hadn’t been sure.

As I passed through the park, I did see a couple of guys sat at a table with head torches on. It seemed a bit strange and I slowed down only to discover a second rival checkpoint! I think in the rush to get the checkpoint open early for me there had been a little confusion and two had arrived at once.

I was still running happy, not paying too much attention to schedule, I knew there was a huge gap behind me and my closest competitions and I suspected I was around the 36 hour mark, probably under, but I was having fun so just trust the timings to take care of the themselves.

At the race briefing in the morning, we had been told that the Thames Path would be diverted between 2200 and 0600 due to the Reading Festival. When this was the case, simple road-based diversions would be in place. However, no-one had ever reached Reading near those times so we shouldn’t worry. I knew my schedule and was a little concerned but I knew Reading and if it were signed it would be fine.

It wasn’t fine. I remember becoming a little concerned when I realised I’d been running a very long time with the high fence of the festival on one side of me and the Thames on the other. If this came to an end it was going to be a long way back. But they wouldn’t do that would they? They’d sign the diversion at the start of the fencing.

Well they didn’t and they hadn’t. Eventually I was faced with a security guard who told me that the path was closed and no one was being allowed through. There was no diversion. His only advice was to go back, although to where he couldn’t say. There were two other non-festival goers with me by this stage all trying to use the path to go about their business.

We talked our way past the first guard saying that, if, as he said, the police were blocking the way further down we’d like to speak to them about the best diversion. We did this again at a second set of security guards another 100 yards further down, but eventually the tide of people returning telling us that it was no use became irrefutable.

My only choice was to run back along the fence until it looked like I could get back to the road and then try following the other side of the site until I could re-join the path. I reckoned from memory it was 1-1.5 miles back down the fence. I wasn’t happy at this stage. I had a good lead, but this was costing me an hour and a lot of stress. If my nearest competition was just 3 hours behind they could hit this section just at the closure ended and sail straight through what took me an hour to route around.

I knew this wasn’t good for me and that I just had to get on with it. I was looking forward to Pangbourne to Goring stretch and I felt good about hitting the end of T-100 before any of the T-100 participants.

I followed the road and high fences for what felt like a very long time. I knew from the GPS that it would eventually take me to Tilehurst Station (perfect as this is where the TP crosses the railway and joins the road). Getting back onto the riverbank wasn’t therefore going to be an issue so long as this road didn’t just end with more gates and fences.

2015 T184 Mark Denby 03

At Goring Paul Ali met me under the bridge and we walked to his car in the car park at the Swan. I sat down for a few mins, think I changed my GPS batteries and then set off again. I can’t remember what timing info I was given but it was enough to confirm that I didn’t have to worry about the Reading bypass; I was a long way ahead.

2015 T184 Mark Denby 04

Mark at the Streatley Checkpoint

I set off in a pretty good mood just before dawn. Wallingford at dawn. A lovely sunny day and then it started to go wrong as I was on the approach to Oxford. The mystery of tap 15 was solved (my intermediate water point on which I had no notes). It did exist and it was part of a lock but I can’t remember which one.

There was a nasty bit coming out of Wallingford, I think, where 30-40 bullocks were all crowded round the other side of a gate I needed to get through. I was pretty determined to recover from Reading at this stage so I got myself a big stick, got in the field with them and calmly shooed them away, prodding the ones that refused with my stick, trying to squeeze my way between the herd on my left and the river to my right (which many of the herd were having a paddle in). What I did not want to do was get in the middle of them.

I was feeling fine up until this point and then things started to get really hard and my energy just drained. Mentally I felt fine except I was concerned about my physical decline. My legs were working fine, but each time I tried to run the exertion just zapped all my energy, my heart and lungs would complain, I’d overheat and it wasn’t sustainable.

I needed to change something (sleep, change clothes, sit for a while) and get myself back on track. I didn’t (and still don’t) understand what was happening. This couldn’t be the mental impact of Reading.

My partner, Mark, joined me in Oxford and this was a huge boost to my mood. Just as I’d hoped there would be, there were some benches along the river outside the pub in Oxford and I sat there, took my socks off, let my feet dry in the warm sun, put on fresh dry socks, sat with my top off and let that dry in the sun. I put some reassuring calf guards on (not sure they’d do any good, but anything to make me feel better).

I think I spent about 45 mins in total. I had decided I was happy to do it, I had time in the bank and I felt it was a worthwhile investment. I had considered having a 20 min nap (that had actually been the original idea) but I felt better and decided I could do that later if I felt it necessary.

The Oxford reset had boosted my mood, but unfortunately it wasn’t my mood that was the problem. I passed the time running when I could and walking, but it was mainly walking.

Around 1600 I found myself staggering around having just fallen asleep again and decided that I had so much time in the bank I felt it was a good time to test the theory that a 30 minute nap can pay huge dividends.

I was in a lovely field by the Thames on a sunny Saturday afternoon. I checked to make sure there were no cows in the field and nor could any get in, set the alarm on my phone for 30 mins, chucked my pack on the ground and crashed out spread eagled in the middle of the field with my hat over my face.

Sometime later I became aware of a very loud engine noise. Cursing inconsiderate boat owners, river-hogs etc I slowly came round and opened my eyes to see huge crop-sprayer parked in front of me and a concerned looking farmer climbing down from it, saying “Oh! You’re not dead then?”. I took this as my queue to crack on.

It’s a good job the farmer had turned up as I discovered I’d set my alarm for a 23:30 hour nap and not a 0:30 one. It did help hugely, I felt remarkably invigorated by such a short sleep. Once again, however, this wasn’t my main problem. I still just couldn’t run.

Bizarrely, I found my inability to exert myself was time based and not level based. For example, I tried a walk 1-minute, run 1-minute cycle to see if I could get into some routine as I was worried with arbitrary breaks I’d lose time. What I found was that 1-minute was just too long, but that jogging, running or sprinting could all take place about 55 secs before I felt I needed to stop.

Things got better as evening drew in. I had ceased my intake of liquid food and replace by water + electrolyte which may have helped (although that did leave me struggling for carbs), but I think just the fact that it got cooler made a bigger difference.

Unfortunately, my window of opportunity was brief as shortly after my respiratory system began coming back online my feet and legs decided it was their turn. My feet were cold, wet and starting to get a little bruised (but not a single blister!). I also started getting a pain in my right knee when (but only when) I ran. I would love to have gone for 40 hours but with the knee it just wasn’t worth the risk; it was actually the most likely thing to stop me getting to this finish line at this point so I stuck to walking.

I did find it hard to stay positive when trudging through the mud on the second night with freezing cold feet and doing the arithmetic that told me how much longer I’d be out in the cold for given my much reduced pace.

I finally reached the stone at 03:22. The final section seemed to take forever. I was using my GPSs ‘Distance to destination feature’ and clock time as my only reference points for progress. I’d forgotten just how long the final section actually is.

Unofficial Timings

Comparison of approximate split times from GPS vs 36 and 40 hour targets (this Is where you can really see the wheels coming off):

CP Split Total 36 hours 40 hours Actual Split Pace
CP 0 (Water stop) 14.0 12.3 02:21:18 02:35:50 01:57:09 01:57:09 08:22
CP 1 (Beehive, Brentford) 12.7 26.7 02:07:44 02:20:53 03:50:00 01:52:51 08:53
Sunbury Lock (Just past lock on left) 14.3 41.0 02:25:27 02:40:26 06:11:00 02:21:00 09:52
CP 2 (Bells of Ouzeley) 12.7 53.7 02:12:07 02:25:43 08:19:00 02:08:00 10:05
Tap 7 (On brick building behind church) 14.6 68.3 02:42:40 03:06:39 10:49:00 02:30:00 10:16
CP 3 (Anchor of Henley) 13.2 81.4 02:38:57 02:55:19 13:22:00 02:33:00 11:35
Tap 12 (Corner of activity centre) 15.4 96.8 03:11:16 03:30:25 16:44:00 03:22:00 13:07
CP 4 (The Swan, Streatley) 4.6 101.4 00:58:21 00:57:55 17:54:56 01:10:56 15:25
Tap 15 (No notes) 15.0 116.4 02:58:31 03:11:04 21:02:13 03:07:17 12:29
CP 5 (The Punter, Oxford) 14.5 130.9 02:51:02 03:08:38 25:16:38 04:14:25 17:33
Northmoor Lock (No notes) 11.9 142.8 02:24:04 02:38:54 27:53:27 02:36:49 13:11
CP 6 (The Swan, Bampton) 12.4 155.2 02:33:31 02:49:19 31:34:00 03:40:33 17:47
CP 7 (Red Lion Inn, Castle Eaton) 13.1 168.3 02:46:03 03:09:03 35:13:00 03:39:00 16:43
Finish (The stone!) 16.8 185.0 03:48:52 04:29:43 40:47:00 05:34:00 19:53
100 miles (but not necessarily in the right direction) 16:41:00
132 miles 24:00:00

Perfect for 80 miles, the Reading bypass throws me (tap 12, Pangbourne after Reading), things get really bad towards Oxford. The Oxford reset revives me, but it’s short-lived and the last 3 legs are painfully slow. Pretty accurate really!

What Would I Change?

Were I to do the event again, I would change very little.

Putting on a lightweight pair of socks at Oxford was a mistake. The cold and the dew later on made my feet very cold; a standard weight pair would have kept them warmer.

Obviously I am keen to understand what caused my Oxford blues and need to do some more research into electrolytes etc. If unable to work it out, I would just keep a much closer eye on myself for signs of overheating the day before.

Re-Cap

Don’t underestimate how much planning T184 requires. Start early, get your kit together and train with it. Test everything and don’t make last minute changes.

Recce, recce, recce.

Obsess over every detail, concentrate on eliminating all sources doubt and uncertainty; minimize the mental effort required on race day.

Know, believe and prove that your goals are realistic.

Come race day, forget the lot; trust in your preparation and focus on enjoying the experience.

The happier you are during the event, regardless of what your goals are, the more successful you’ll be.

The best of luck with an amazing challenge,

Mark Denby

4 September, 2015.