Stories from the Thames Meander
Theo Theato completed the Thames Meander in 2003. Here is his story....
The Thames Meander is as accurately descriptive as calling Vlad the Impaler fond of toothpicks.
You get the idea, when you first hear the title, of a gentle ramble across grassy towpaths, a piece of long grass between your teeth, Youth Hostel badges pinned to your knotty walking stick, content with your lot, your inner being resonating with the reassuring sounds of country life around you; the lowing of the cows and the 'tink tink' of their bells, the cries of the barge skippers as they ply their trade along the waterway, the cheerful music of a marsh warbler as it flits from stem to stem of the reeds growing in abundance by the river bank. Even a little country vole might be spotted as it timidly peeps from its cleverly disguised nest in a flowery knoll. Perhaps you might be forgiven that on such a stroll you could stop at a country pub for a pint of real ale and Ploughman's Lunch. You can almost taste the cheese and pickle. Afterwards, lying on your back on a nearby hillock, you would watch the clouds shift and change in the fresh summer sky, transforming into wonderful shapes, and you would dream your afternoon away in tranquil bliss... Let us not forget the Oxford Dictionary definition of the word 'Meander.' (It brings to mind the curves of an ancient river, weaving its way through meadows, until an ox-bow lake takes shape over the centuries. Time in abundance, nothing rushed, nature's peaceful, unhurried way...) "To follow a winding course...wander aimlessly...an ornamental pattern of winding lines..."
Well, excuse me, but bollocks!
Can someone please explain to me how on Saturday 15th February, on just such a 'Meander', I found myself nearly 15 hours into the journey, in pitch darkness, caked in filth, carrying a 25lb backpack, wearing a miner's head lamp which had cut out, leaving me blind and stumbling, my knee resembling John Merrick's worst one, my blistered feet looking and feeling like bubble wrap, freezing, shivering, cursing nature and all humanity, my pain receptors screaming like a boy racer's car alarm, my endorphins having abandoned my bruised and numb body, and not even a bloody vole in sight!
The occasion was the 52 mile marathon from Reading to Hampton, along the Thames towpath. It was supposed to be in preparation for the Marathon des Sables endurance footrace. I just ended up feeling like a very lost Postie on a grim housing estate, pursued by dogs, heckled by boozers pointing the way to the caves (courtesy of my lamp and backpack) and suffering like the Messiah on his way to Golgotha to try out the latest acupuncture cure. I was on my own for the most part, bewildered and wondering why I was putting myself through such a momentous struggle. Even now, I can hardly comprehend that this was an elementary jog compared to what we will face in Morocco in April. Substitute voles for scorpions and venomous snakes, a Ploughman's Lunch for freeze dried crap and power bars.
I finished very late, the equivalent of an elderly parent finishing the egg and spoon race on Sports day, just in time to help the Caretaker pack away the folding chairs for the Assembly Hall, leaflets proclaiming the big day blowing around the deserted playing fields. 'Chariots of Fire' it wasn't. No slow motion and stirring anthems. It felt more like 'Platoon' mixed with 'Alien 3'. With a sadist popcorn lady beating me senseless with a Cornetto. I felt a tad unprepared. The wind is never as harsh in your imagination. The pain is never really going to kick in. From behind the security of your Everest windows you envisage striding purposefully past other runners, even smiling a little from the corner of your mouth, your daydreaming alter ego smug and superior, and with more comfortable running shoes. And having seen those little dancing bunnies on TV inumerable times, why the bejeebers didn't I put a couple of Duracells in my torch? I would probably have been skipping in a similar fashion, illuminating my way ahead like an angler fish after its prey, instead of staggering wildly in the dark like a bridegroom on the run after thirty pints and the threat of being tied naked to a fire hydrant.
In one way, this killer of a race, not in terms of distance necessarily but in terms of terrain and weather, did prepare me for one thing. Not the Marathon des Sables though. Now I'm perfectly prepared as a contestant on 'Stars in their Eyes.' "Tonight Mathew, I'm going to be absolutely brain dead. I'm performing as Ozzy Osbourne."
Charlie Norton completed the Marathon des Sables and Thames Meander in 2005
In just over a month I will be one of 800 competitors taking part in the Marathon des Sables - "the world's toughest foot race".
The MDS, as it is known, is a 150-mile ultra-marathon in the Sahara desert and was set up by the pioneering Patrick Bauer 20 years ago when 23 madcap runners completed the first event.
It takes part in six stages over seven days across salt flats, desert plains, dried up lakes and giant sand dunes near Ouarzazate in Morocco. In extreme temperatures ranging from daytime highs of 125F to night-time lows of close to freezing, the runners carry all their food and supplies on their backs, hoping to avoid sandstorms in which they can barely move. A snake bite kit is a compulsory item and cut-off times rule out any stragglers.
Maybe it was an ill-wind from the Sahara itself that blew my senses. Why the desert? Well, I'm not agoraphobic, I don't have enough money to go into space and my fear of heights rules out a mountain ascent. So I settled on the MDS because of the special atmosphere generated by the event and the infectious draw of conquering your own part of the desert.
Bauer, now the race director, has said: "Those who finish the course can announce it with due pride and emotion. The MDS is a race in a league of its own and must remain the way history has shaped it. We often hear about the myth. It's founded as much on the sheer feats of the winners as the experiences of thousands of anonymous runners. Each participant comes to take up a personal challenge in which he/she will have invested considerable energy. This is most probably why pulling out is genuinely heart-rending. Everyone pushes their limits to the full to reach the finish line in the shortest time. There is a before and after the Marathon des Sables."
So, in January, I decided I had better withdraw from impolite society and embark on some serious training. A few eyebrows were raised by those who know me.
Although I have a basic level of fitness I can safely say I'm more basement bar than lycra on a treadmill. So although I ran regularly last year up to Christmas I was worried that the only lifestyle compromise to my desert enterprise was to switch from Marlborough to Camel Lights. A month ago I violently cranked up the tempo by taking on an endurance marathon after a monkish start to the new year.
It took a titanic tussle with the interminable hills of Devon to make me realise that I'm an ailing snail in the endurance world. Carrying my rucksack with me to replicate MDS conditions I staggered around the course in just under six hours, arriving at the finishing line utterly chastened and crippled with pain.
But the barbed hook had caught hold and the next step in my enforced schedule was a 54-mile ultra-marathon set up by MDS veterans to prepare for the 80km stage of the race on day five. So the weekend before last I gingerly took on what is called the Thames Meander, a name which conveys the utterly misleading impression that you're about to enjoy a pleasant jaunt in the country peering at period houses and, for the first 20 miles, you are. But further on you have to picture 100 gnarled endurance athletes tottering under rucksacks in the bitter cold, blindly navigating along the Thames tow path long into the night with miners' lamps and slavering over carbohydrate gels that taste like wallpaper paste, to get some idea of what this gruelling event entails.
I am loathed to summarise the 14 hours of emotional turmoil that was my miserable 'meander' from Reading to Surbiton. Suffice to say it was agony. The first half took about five hours but the second an almost unbearable nine as my 10 kilogram rucksack turned into an anvil, even shuffling became tortuous and my map reading impotence led me to screaming on the towpath.
I suppose the other competitors must have looked and felt similar at the end. I arrived at the finish just before midnight, racked with pain. The last three miles took nearly two hours and the railway sidings in Surbiton are now a dark patch on my soul. My body is still recovering and I have destroyed the ligaments on my left foot but after such a distance everyone has a niggle. Now I just want to get through the MDS. But what can a toiling minnow do to maximise his endurance potential and finish the race? Dr Mike Stroud, the right-hand man to the explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes, believes the most important quality is not physical conditioning, stamina or mental toughness. "The quality you really need with all these tests," Stroud believes, "is a bad memory, so you can remember the good parts and forget the bad."
March 2005. Copyright Daily Telegraph
Charlie Norton ran for Facing Africa, a charity helping to reverse the ravaging effects of NOMA, a disease targeting children and prevalent in Africa. Donations can be made at www.facingafrica.org
Chris Stone completed the Thames Meander in 2006
The Thames Meander, as its name suggests, is a flat, scenic 54 mile race that starts from Reading, Berkshire and follows the river Thames (apart from where the path diverts around private land), to East Molsey Cricket Club, near Hampton Court London, which was a new finish for this year.
Originally devised as a shake down run for Marathon des Sables racers, complete with a Sahara school the next day, this event has started to attract a bigger field and now includes runners who just want to 'do' the event. My wife, Gill and I, first tried this event in 2004 but at 38 miles we decided to pull out due to getting very wet and cold.
MDS racers have to carry the kit they will actually be using in the MDS and all runners are required to carry change of clothing, food etc. for the duration of the race. There are 5 check points approximately every 10 miles, where runners have to login and take on water. Runners are also required to carry appropriate route maps and check point positions. The weather forecast for the day indicated that it would be cloudy, poor viz, slight ENE wind, some rain later. The actual weather during course of day was temp 0 - +1 degrees, fog, clearing to bright sunshine, rain showers late PM.
There were 178 race entries for this years race, as opposed to 60 in 2004. I was told later that about 155 runners crossed the start line and that 21 runners had dropped out during the race. A new joint race record was set this year at 7hrs 55mins. My time was 13hrs. 42mins. If I spent less time at the control points and avoided becoming part of a group, I believe I could do better by an hour or more!
I trained quite hard for this event. Up to 50+ miles per week with back to back long runs at weekends. The training programme I followed was a mix of the Ultraladies.com 50 mile training schedule for 'newbie' ultrarunners and a 100k 'novice' schedule taken from The Lore Of Running by Tim Noaks. The 100k schedule is relevant, as I will be running in the Sunrise to Sunset 100k in June, in Mongolia. All this just because I hit 60 last August.
Although a little overweight, I felt physically prepared for this race but was fully aware that the weak ground would be my mental attitude, as I just want to give up and catch a bus when the going gets hard mentally. I am pleased to say that for the whole of the 54 miles, my mental attitude stayed positively focused and I was able to work through the one or two low points I had. Anyway to cut a long story short, from beginning to end I enjoyed the whole of this race - the camaraderie, the mud, the Marshals, the public who offered encouragement as I passed them by, the cup of tea at mile 28 (CP3), my wife waiting for me with a flask of hot Bovril at mile 38 (CP4), the company of others on the towpath, the group photo at the finish, the medal, the T-shirt, the mug, the blisters on both feet, a seized up right leg and a wonderful sense of belonging!
Andy Horsley completed the Thames Meander in 2006
Sounds lovely, a sociable jog on a route along the Thames Path following the meanders of the river, passing through some of the most picturesque towns in Southern England. The truth is very different
This event was contrived a few years ago to replicate the longest (and hardest) day of the Marathon des Sables and therefore to be used as part preparation for the Sahara trip. I entered (along with about 170 others) for that reason.
The rules are simple, follow the Thames Path from Reading to Hampton Court, including every "meander" along the way. There are five checkpoints along the way at which you can top up your water bottles. You are expected to navigate yourself and therefore carry map and compass from start to finish taking in each checkpoint. The total distance is just a shade under 55 miles and you are expected to carry a pack with a minimum weight of 4 kg, plus water/drinks. The race is timed to finish well after dark (cut-off 3.30am) and so you are expected to carry sleeping equipment for the end.
And so I found myself stood at 9am in freezing fog on the riverbank at Reading awaiting the start. I had checked my pack weight at 7 kg and was also carrying 1.5 litres of drink. Most of the conversation between runners consisted of comparisons on expected finishing times, footwear choices, pack size and weight and clothing as it was colder than expected. My pack was heavier than most but I felt I had everything I needed for any eventuality. (I did hear someone's pack was 15 kg but there were also some suspiciously light packs)
The race started on time and we all disappeared into the fog along the bank. Over the first 10 miles or so there were many people readjusting their loads due to being unprepared or due to breakages (my energy drink bottle flew off after 2 miles, I should have learned my lesson as it had done the same at Blackmore Vale.) As the field spread out it became very eerie as the fog brought in a cold, quiet atmosphere where you only caught fleeting glances of other runners. After the first checkpoint (conveniently hidden behind a church) near Henley things really thinned out, the "racing snakes" went off into the distance and the "shufflers" slowed up. I was somewhere in the middle running with an Australian who was good company until he pulled up with a knee injury. After the second checkpoint at about 19 miles things got rough for me. The fog lifted but the route for the next 15 miles or so was nearly all mud following the rain that had been falling all week. Personally I found it hard going and although my legs were OK despite all the slipping and sliding my brain wanted to go home. I didn't see another runner until I was passed around Maidenhead by a guy who had started late. I got to the third checkpoint (about 28 miles) and stopped for a bit to top up my drinks and chat to the marshalls to regain some sanity. I then set off again slowly and reluctantly. Over the next few miles I was passed by two or three more runners as I slowed down, yet again I realised that road shoes are no good for 2-3 inches of mud!
After passing yet another diversion, cunningly set up to add more distance, I heard a voice behind me, "Are you a sight for sore eyes!!". I looked round expecting to see a very short sighted person and saw Michael, a 6'5" Lancashire lad who I had met a few weeks previously at a desert training seminar and last seen in the fog at Reading. He told me that he had been having a really bad time and could he stick with me for the rest of the race, having told him a similar story we carried on with a run/walk strategy. We passed and were passed by several people over the next few miles, most notably a Dutchman who we corrected several times as he insisted on trying to get lost, the last time trying to enter the grounds of Windsor Castle. He stayed with us until the next checkpoint after I told him what the police would do to him trying to get into the Queen's back garden with a backpack and several items strapped to him. It must be noted that his name and looks were of Middle Eastern origin.
The penultimate checkpoint was at Runnymede (38 miles) where my family had pitched camp to witness more stupidity by myself. This gave us a lift and we put more running in until it got dark at about 6pm. This is when Omar ran ahead to try and improve his finishing time. Thereafter running was only carried out when very safe despite wearing head torches. Having said that walking was done at an astonishing pace trying to keep up with my tall friend. We got through to the last checkpoint (48 miles) through telling each other scary stories about the desert. (Does anyone know anything about Camel Spiders?) We gave the marshalls our best wishes as they would be there until 1am at least and carried on with Jim, an MDS veteran who joined us for the last few miles having caught up with us just before the checkpoint which again boosted our morale. After another encounter with "rentacrowd" we crossed Walton Bridge and started on the last 5 miles or so along the pitch black riverbank.
The mud along this part was not too bad and the lights at the finish were a welcome sight in the blackness along with my family who cheered us to the end. The three of us crossed the line together in 11 hours 51 minutes. More than 6.5 hours inside the cut-off, a pleasant change for me! After having a medal put over our heads and issued with a t-shirt we were put on a minibus to the Sports Centre at Surbiton for the night. We were offered free tea, soup etc and a space on the wooden floor to sleep. The only people in already were the elite runners who applauded us as we came in (a reaction which was repeated for every runner throughout the night until the last ones in at about 3am). After some soup, a shower and half a dozen cups of tea I lay down in my lightweight sleeping bag in my clean clothes (all of which I had carried from Reading). After the banter had died down we all tried unsuccessfully to sleep until someone's alarm went off at 6am. We were then given more tea/coffee and some muesli before departing home.
When we do this for real in the Sahara in a few weeks we will have done 3 days hard running before this and will have to do a marathon the next day, feeling as I do I cannot imagine how it will happen and it will be the hardest thing I have ever done.
Statistics for the day, the winner finished in 7hrs 55min!!, there were 135 starters, 21 dropped out and I finished in joint 54th place. I accumulated 3 very large blisters, two very sore legs and one large sense of achievement. Last note must go to the organisers and marshalls, many of whom were on duty from 8am Saturday until sometime Sunday, nothing was too much trouble and they really made you welcome everywhere.