Monday, June 29, 2009

The Untamed Thames Ring 250 - Part I

Saturday, June 20
I spent the morning running about 9 miles or so with Anu and Raj. We ran down Hwy 9 to Los Gatos, took a left turn on Santa Cruz Ave. which soon became Winchester Blvd. A left turn onto Knowles took us back towards Anu's home. A wonderful, warm day and an equally wonderful run with motivated friends.

I went back home to shower and pack and return to Anu's home in my car which I had planned to leave there. My flight was at 7:15 p.m. and I wanted to be in the airport before 5 p.m. Anu and Lily drove me there and I reached with ample time to spare. The airport was deserted! I was checked in and on my way to Security 10 minutes after I had walked into the Terminal!

(With Lily and Anu outside the San Francisco airport)

I eventually found my way to the gate and spent the next hour and a half reading the turn-by-turn race route details and tracing them in the Geo Projects Thames Ring map I had bought a few months ago from Amazon. It was so exciting to find the various small details like Pub names or street names on that map. I did manage to sleep for a few hours on the 10-hr long flight.

Sunday, June 21
I landed in London about 15 minutes early. Immigration and Customs were fast and I was out by 1:45 p.m. Time now to head for the Underground. The 3 bags were heavy with race stuff and it was quite hard lugging them down to the Underground. After asking around, I bought a 1-way ticket to the Gloucester Road station (about a mile from the hotel) on the Piccadilly line. The train came in soon enough and I stashed my bags by the door and sat down to enjoy the 45-minute trip to Gloucester Road.

The walk from the station to the hotel was very hard. I was going up a bit of a slope all the way lugging the heavy bags and I was thankful for the hotel (Best Western John Howard, next to The Royal Albert Hall) steps when they swam into view! I quickly got my room and put the bags in a corner. That's about when I received a text message from Engel Martin, my BMC ex-manager who had moved to Ireland a month ago and who was visiting London for the weekend, asking me if I wanted to meet up with him in Harrods.

I freshened up and headed out the door with my camera to make my way to Harrods which my map showed me to be on Brompton Road in Knightsbridge. It was about between a mile to a mile and a half from my hotel. I decided to walk through Kensington Park where a concert was going on. The music was fantastic and I stood for many long minutes enthralled by the sounds and the people enjoying a sunny London late afternoon.

Engel and his family were in the toy section of the store. I must have spent 10 minutes or so talking to him before we were asked to leave since the store was closing at 6 p.m. (Sunday and all that).

(With Engel and his daughters)

We decided to take the party to a pub next door and soon found ourselves enjoying a glass of wine and eating pub fare. It was a walk in Hyde Park after that before we parted ways. I wanted to get back and sleep so that I could be rested for the trip to Streatley the next morning.

Monday, June 22
I had breakfast around 8 a.m. the next morning in the restaurant's dining room before checking out. I had 3 choices - call for a cab to take me to Paddington station, (b) take the Underground from Gloucester Road to Paddington or (c) walk the couple of miles across Hyde Park to the station. I chose the last option.

What a hard walk it was! The bag I was pulling was heavy and the castors were not the best. My two shoulder bags were heavy as well making for many stops along the way to rest my weary shoulders. I finally reached Paddington Station where I quickly bought a one-way ticket to Goring/Streatley station (16.50 pounds). I hauled my luggage onto the luggage rack in the compartment and sat down by a window to enjoy the scenery going past. I was curious to see if I could even spot the Thames Path! I did not but was fortunate to see the Oracle building when the train pulled into Reading. Adding to my woes for that day, I had, unfortunately, not taken a direct train to Goring. I was forced to haul my heavy bags from Platform 3 to Platform 9 using a tunnel below the tracks. Man, was that tough!!! The Goring train eventually arrived and I scrambled on it.

Goring station was another problem. I was faced with the prospect of taking my luggage up a flight of stairs and down another on the opposite side. This is when I had my first slice of luck for the day. :) A tall young man named Robin asked me if I needed help. I gladly accepted. When he learned that I was going to walk the 0.75 miles to the Swan Hotel, he offered to drop me off. Thank you Robin!

The room I was given in the Swan was right on the water. What a lovely view I had from the balcony. The hotel itself is a very old one and the plumbing supported that fact! :) Nonetheless I decided to head out for lunch. With my faithful camera in tow, I decided to first check where the Start was. To my utter surprise, it was right next door to the Swan (50 yards or so away!). I then headed the opposite way to check out where the Thames Path was. I found it soon enough and stood there examining it as a boxer might his opponent! :)

(Pretty signs in Streatley)

Lunch was in the Miller of Mansfield pub. A glass of wine and a delicious pizza. Out I went again to the Thames Path for a short walk along the first few hundred yards. I ate dinner that night in the Swan dining room.

Tuesday, June 23
I woke up early the next morning and spent the morning lazing around and buying last minute stuff like water and a few more batteries and bandaids.

I went back to the Thames Path again and was sitting there talking to an Underground train driver named Steve when a couple pulled up in their canoe right in front of us. They were obviously headed to town for a quick bite to eat. They asked us if their stuff was safe in the canoe. I then offered to help them lug their stuff to my hotel and have the hotel staff put it in the back office. We were soon walking towards the hotel, talking about my race. They were excited at the prospect of, maybe, seeing me out on the course as they were planning to camp overnight 6-7 miles down the river and were not planning to start rowing again until after 10 a.m. the next day. Mike and Mary made for a striking couple.

I spent the next few hours making my drop bags.

Alicja Barahona, one of 2 women to start the race (she eventually finished 3rd overall in 79 hrs! What an athlete!!), and I had met earlier when she was checking into the hotel and we decided to go look for rice or pasta to eat. After trying a couple of pubs in vain, we decided to eat in the Swan that evening. We ate an early dinner with a couple of other runners. We were all champing at the bit.

I went to bed early but could not sleep for the next 2 hours, nervousness and jet lag keeping me wide awake.

Wednesday, June 24
Race day finally! Gosh what an adventure it promised to be!! I was excited to say the least. I made my last minute toilet calls before checking out and lugging my 2 drop bags to the Morrell Rooms next door. A lot of the other runners were already there. I picked up my bib number and paid 5 pounds as deposit for a toilet key for the Grand Union Canal section of the course. I safely put that key in my waist pouch.

(The Start)

(With Alicja just before the Start)

(Doing my customary dynamic stretches)
Alicja and I had a couple of pictures taken outside and before I knew it the race had started. The others sprinted off like they were running a mere marathon or 50K! I walked to the start of the Thames Path, about 0.2 miles from the Morrell Room, and had a chance to take pictures of the frontrunners from the bridge.

Morrell Rooms, Streatley -->> Hurleyford Farm, CP #1
Segment: 27.2 miles; Total: 27.2 miles; Time Limit: 8 hrs.
Very soon I was the last runner. I had my camera in my hand and the laminated map cum instructions for this first section of the course in the other along with my bottles. Clicked a bunch of pictures before putting the camera away to tackle a few climbs, one of which included 10 or so stairs at a steepish angle. The right Achilles tendon was a tad tight owing to the impinged sciatic nerve in my back. That tightness eventually disappeared and never came back the rest of the race.

I kept looking at the directions on the map and making the correct turns as directed. I soon spotted a runner up front. He had slowed down to talk on his phone. I passed him and asked after his wellbeing (I always do that in a race). He said he was fine so I continued. Very soon another couple of runners showed up in front of me. I caught up with them and very soon there were 3-4 of us making our way along the Thames Path that soon wound its way away from the river into a residential neighborhood. That's whan a runner named Carl Sommer (he went on to finish in 91 hours!) called me back because I had missed a turn. Destiny! He was to be my savior on more than one occasion in the next 70 miles.

We made our way through the town of Whitchurch and were back on the Thames Path. It was reassuring to see the sign pointing in the direction of Reading! This was a section that ran right next to the river (on the left) and the railway line (to London in the direction we were moving in) on the right. I vaguely remembered seeing this section on my way in a few days ago.

By now there were 3 of us running together - Carl, Gary (a policeman) and I. Gary had completed a 205 mile one-off race a few years ago and he was looking forward to taking on this monster. It was fun running with these 2 Englishmen.

During one of our deviations away from the river, I espied a small convenience store and we were soon drinking chocolate milk and the local Gatorade-like drink. They really hit the spot.

It was just after Pangbourne, going past one of the locks, that I happened to look between a couple of boats in the lock and noticed a couple paddling their boat. It was Mike and Mary from the day before. I excitedly hailed them and took a couple of pictures of them before wishing them a good trip to Reading.

(Mary and Mike)

Carl and I soon found ourselves running through a big open field on the right and the river Thames on the left. I could see for miles off to the right and it was a sight to warm the heart.

We soon approached Caversham and the bridge across the Thames I had seen pictures of over the past few months. Wow! I had to slow down (not that I was running that fast!) to absorb the sight and let it all sink in. WOW!

The river was lined with wonderful homes on the far side of the path. Homes that had "garages" for their small boats! I was very captivated by the passing scenery.

Through Caversham and onto Reading. The path was lined on our right with apartment buildings, office buildings and an occasional restaurant or two. We rounded a corner and I was overjoyed to see a familiar sign on a couple of buildings on the right. Oracle. My old employer. I had interacted with a bunch of people from this Thames Valley Park office during my years in HQ in Redwood Shores in the Bay area. Carl took a picture of me with Oracle in the background.

We soon put Reading behind us and got on with the task of pushing on to CP#1.

(Henley Church off in the distance)

I soon spotted a church off in the distance. It was Henley Church. The number of people on the path had now increased substantially. Into Henley-on-Thames rolled the caravan of 2 runners. I was a tad behind Carl taking pictures. Henley was a hive of activity with intense practice and preparations going on for the annual Henley Regatta that was to take place the Tuesday after i.e. June 30. It was one of the nicest towns I had seen in a while. The Thames was very wide here and the rowing lanes had been set out for more than a mile. Rowers were practicing with their coaches yelling out instructions on megaphones. We passed through Henley, after sucking down on an ice cream cone each, around 3 p.m. or so. That was 22 miles in 5 hours of running. Not bad.

(Carl going past people enjoying the afternoon sun)

(Lovely Henley)
CP#1 eventually came at 4:07 p.m. (6:07 hrs. into the race). I spent 20 minutes there replenishing my gels, having my bottles refilled and eating some food. I joked around with Anthony and the other volunteers and left at 4:27 p.m.

Hurleyford Farm, CP#1 -->> Chertsey Bridge, CP #2
Segment: 27.8 miles; Total: 55.05 miles; Time: 8 hrs.
Carl had left 3 minutes before me and a combination of his slowing down for me and my speeding up meant that I soon caught up with him. The past few days in the UK had told me that it stayed light until just past 10:15 p.m. or so and got light again around 4:00-4:30 a.m. I was looking at around 6 hours of darkness. Another 6 hours before it got dark. Maybe we would make it to CP#2 just around the time the day gave way to the night.

Onwards we trudged along the Thames Path. Past homes and apartment complexes. On cement and asphalt roads. Past houseboats and other boats in the river. I kept asking Carl about Windsor Castle. The 6 hours to the sight of Windsor Castle are a blur. All I remember is that we spent quite a few miles going through neighborhoods, some of them rich ones, and shaded country lanes.

We soon moved from the right bank to the left side and stuck to this side all the way to Windsor. The castle was soon spotted off in the distance and very soon we were in a clearing with the huge bulk of the castle looming across the Thames on the right. Pictures of the castle were the last pictures I took in this race. I put the camera away in my drop bag for the night and never took it out the next 2 days! No idea why!!

In Windsor, Carl and I walked into a pub and bought a couple of bottles of water to refill our hand bottles.

Night was upon us now and we had on our respective headlamps. The laminated maps had great mileage notes. We soon caught up with Andrew Ferguson a.k.a Fergie The three of us ran together for a few miles. We passed under M25 and soon were joined by Paddy Craig. Paddy and Fergie took off ahead of us and Carl and I stayed together. We eventually passed them a mile or two before CP#2 which we reached at 11:31 p.m. or 13:31 hours into the race. Carl and I left the AS together at 11:59 p.m. after eating, replenishing our gels and picking up extra flashlights and batteries.

(to be continued ...)

1 comment:

Raju Vusirikala said...

Waiting for part2 of the story.. getting interesting now..