Milton Keynes -->> Nether Heyford, CP #6
Segment: 26.95 miles; Total: 157.15 miles; Time Limit: 11 hrs.
(Showing off my colored Injinji socks to Anthony, Kathy and the others)
(Leaving CP #5 at 4:59 a.m. on Friday, June 26)
"At BR 71 next to Wolverton Station (no toilet) 138.4 mls there is a 24 hour Tesco 200 yards beyond the BR on the far side of the canal from the towpath. It has an in-house Starbucks Café open from 0730 to 1900 (approx). BR 76 Black Horse Pub 135.85 mls. After LK 21 WC (locked) and WTR. Cross BR 65 to LHS 140.6 mls Cross BR 64 (Navigation BR) to RHS. WTR just before BR 55 146.15 mls.
Cross BR 55 to LHS. At Stoke Bruerne cross BR 53 to RHS. WTR beyond LK 14. Take path to RHS of Blisworth Tunnel. At RD STON for 1.5 miles. TL into Car Park (at Bridleway Finger Post) and down steep track to towpath. At BR 48 WTR. Cross BR 48 to LHS and then, after entrance to Northampton Arm, cross BR 47 to RHS 151.05 mls. BR 36 Bugbrooke The Wharf Inn 154.4 mls "
I left the CP wearing my yellow rain jacket, my tights, my Lean Horse cap atop which were my Ryder sunglasses and, most importantly, Tevas on my feet.
Christian Hottas followed me and soon caught up with me. He introduced himself and I was so happy to see him! I had been a bit disappointed to note that his bib had not been picked up when we started the race. He was the one who had sent me information about this race and I had wanted to meet him and thank him in person! Turns out that he had arrived late to the Start and thus had been playing catch up with the rest of the runners.
We talked and we talked for the next many hours. Approximately an hour or so after we had left the CP, I needed to answer Mother Nature's call. I went by the side of the trail while Christian patiently waited. A further hour later we both decided to lie by the side of the trail and get 15 minutes of sleep. I remember being in that state that's between sleep and wakefulness for those 15 minutes. I got up at the same time that Christian did. A couple were walking their dog and we must have looked a strange sight indeed!
We trudged on. We were soon joined by a couple of other runners. I had my heart set on the Starbucks at mile 138 but could not, for the life of me, see the steps leading up to the bridge. Not wanting to disturb the rhythm I was in I continued on as did the others.
We were passing abandoned and derelict warehouses with broken windows and plants growing wildly inside, all the way up to the top row of windows! One of the runners even cracked a joke about this. :)
We soon reached Lock 21. The laminated map mentioned that there was a toilet here and I soon found it. The key I had taken at the start from the race staff now came in handy. It opened up the restroom and I sat down on the toilet in great relief. Outside was a water fountain which I promptly used to fill up my hand bottles.
I looked around and could find no trace of Christian. It was like he had dropped off the face of the earth!!
I continued on thinking he would soon catch up if he was behind me. The day was beautiful and it must have been around 10 a.m. or so when I rounded the path and could see the view of Stoke Bruerne that I had seen pictures of on the Web for many months now. How wonderful!
Beyond the canal, up ahead, I could see building on a hillside. I was approaching Blisworth and the tunnel I had read so much about.
I had crossed over to the RHS of the canal over Bridge 53. The towpath was geting more and more crowded now. I remember a bunch of school children going past in the opposite direction. I finally reached the tunnel. It looked smaller in real life than it did in pictures. At 3076 yds. (just under 2 miles) it was pretty long. As instructed I ascended the trail going up on the right of the tunnel. The last view I had of the South tunnel entrance is shown below as is the path leading up the hill. I power walked this hill.
Now the story gets interesting!
"Take path to RHS of Blisworth Tunnel. At RD STON for 1.5 miles."
This bit confused me! The top of the trail soon reached a road that climbed at a gentle slope slightly to my right and went downhill slightly to my left. Straight On would mean crossing the road and pushing through a tall hedge beyond which I could see a field.
I chose to go right. It was right then that it started drizzling. Earlier in the day I had put my rain jacked inside my backpack. I quickly took it out and put in on. I had hardly gone 0.2 miles when I came to a crossroad. The name on the left read "Bridleway". Could this be where I was supposed to go left? However I could see no car park beyond. Just the path curving off to the right and going downhill. I was puzzled. I looked behind me at the trailhead I had come up. That was my anchor point. Leaving it could mean getting lost!
I saw a person on a bike approaching. I flagged him down. He was riding a Royal Enfield Bullet! I had once owned this bike in India (in the late 70s). I asked him about the other end of Blisworth Tunnel. He did not know where it was but he did tell me that I was headed in the direction of the town of Blisworth. Reassured I set off again walking up the now increasing slope.
It was still drizzling. I soon saw a car coming round the corner slowly. I stopped it to get a second opinion on my choice of direction. The lady too confirmed that Blisworth was indeed in the direction I was going and that it was about 1.5-2 miles away. That was indeed great information! I continued on. I passed at least 3 side streets, a couple of which had names beginning with "B" but none were Bridleway.
Very soon I crested the hill and started running downhill. There was construction going on and the normally narrow road had been narrowed further to a single lane that switched from Northbound to Southbound. Into their midst ran this apparition in yellow on Tevashod feet and a backpack bouncing on his back. My cell phone rang. It was Pallavi. 12:30 p.m. 4:30 a.m. in San Jose. What was she doing up so early? Later. Got to find my way to the other end of the tunnel first.
To my relief I soon spotted the name Bridleway on my left. A car park on the right confirmed I was on the right path. I confidently headed straight on for a hundred feet before noticing that the path veered left and uphill! I had this stinking suspicion that it would go uphill to the same Bridleway road where I had stopped the biker earlier!
I turned around and ran back to a construction vehicle parked in the parking lot. The worker knew nothing about the path I had come from but did point out that a small path to our immediate right in the parking lot led down to the canal! Indeed this was the "down steep track to the towpath" in the instructions. 100 feet later I was happily running along the Grand Union Canal again! I quickly texted Pallavi with my status.
I cannot remember much after this other than the fact that I soon caught up with Christian and Javed Bhatti. We spent the next 7 miles together. It was soon after we had joined up that I remember sitting by the side of the path and fixing my blister [lancing it, draining it and putting antiseptic cream on it. All in 3 minutes. I had become an expert. :) ].
I seem to remember the rain finally coming down heavily around 1:15 p.m. or so. It rained on and off for the next 60 minutes. We were soaked. With about 2 miles to go I took off. I started running at a steady pace and I soon got into a comfortable rhythm. Checkpoint #6 soon came into view around the corner after Bridge 27.
I entered the Checkpoint at 2:23 p.m. I had 37 minutes to get into dry clothes, consume enough calories, get more gels, have my bottles refilled and pick up other stuff like lights, batteries etc. Those were hectic 37 minutes. I took out a bunch of gels and put them somewhere and forgot to take them when I left at 3:00. Not wanting to decide on what to wear, I just got into old tights, shorts and a new shirt. It was here that Anthony told us that we had 11 hours to complete the next section. Both Javed and I pointed out that the document he and Dick had sent out few weeks before the race stated that we had 12 hours to cover the 25.99 miles to Fenny Compton. Anthony insisted it was 11. I left promptly at 3:00 with the hope that Javed and Christian would catch up.
Nether Heyford -->> Fenny Compton, CP #7
Segment: 25.99 miles; Total: 183.14 miles; Time Limit: 12 hrs.
"WTR between BRs 26 and 25. At Norton Junction 162.82 mls cross BR over Leicester Line of Grand Union Canal and then at once over main line canal to LHS. At Braunston Tunnel leave canal, take path bearing RT to join metalled RD where TL to reach A361. Cross RD and STON up path. At path junction STON to steps on RT. Descend to rejoin canal at mouth of tunnel. Shop on left by locks serves hot drinks. Before A45 BR over canal 2 WTR taps about 100 yards apart.At junction with Oxford Canal cross canal on BR 95 to RHS. DO NOT TURN UP OXFORD CANAL Next BR should be 97. At Napton Junction 172.42 mls cross BR 17 over Grand Union to continue on Oxford Canal. DO NOT TR UP GRAND UNION CANAL. Folly Pub WTR At Napton Top LK No 16 WTR."
My lack of any kind of sleep for 53 hours was now playing havoc with my body and mind. The intense humidity after the rain stopped had made the air feel extremely muggy and dense. It added to the feeling of intense lethargy. I stopped a half mile out of the CP to redo my laces. I looked behind me and could see no sign of the others. I continued on. A half mile later I saw a small clearing on the right. I must have been close to a motorway, I believe it to be M1, for I could hear the steady sound of cars moving at high speed.
This clearing did not help either. I got up in 10 minutes to continue on. Still no sign of the others! The next mileage check was at the Norton Junction which was at mile 162.82. I remember thinking that I had enough hours to cover the 25.99 miles and that hurrying was not an option. Compounding my other woes was the state of my cell phone battery charge. It was almost down to 0%. In fact it reached 0% almost right after I left CP#6. I would slow down, plug in the battery operated portabe charger and continue on. After 5-7 minutes I would check the charge level. It stubbornly refused to move from 0% leading me to believe that the portable charger was not working. Now I was concerned. I HAD to have a working phone. What if I had an emergency and needed to call for help? Anthony and Dick, the RDs, had printed their phone numbers on the bib but what good were the numbers if I could not call?
I passed a home with a young man standing right next to the canal. I asked him if he had a mini-USB charger I could use for 10-15 minutes. He was so helpful. He led me around the side of the home to the kitchen where his mother sat smoking. He brought out a big basket filled with chargers but none of them were a mini-USB one! I was disappointed. The Mom however, bless her heart, advised me to cross the lock coming up to the opposite side (I was on the RHS) and go to the hardware store and ask Steve for help. She stated that he was tech savvy.
I did as instructed. Steve indeed knew what he was doing. He brought out a new mini-USB car charger (I bought it for UK Pounds 16.99) and he managed to plug it into a device that was, in turn, plugged into a wall outlet. My cell phone was soon happily gulping down sweet British power! :))
I sat on the floor of the hardware shop from 5 p.m. (Yes! I had probably traveled 3 miles in 2 hours!!) until 5:35 p.m. which is when I decided to get on with the business of running the race. The Blackberry Pearl now showed 40% power. Good enough for at least a day.
Now I started moving with some urgency. The cell phone had been taken care of. Time to put miles behind me. I soon came to Norton Junction which I negotiated carefully (did not want to go off on some other canal and get lost). I was soon on the LHS of the canal headed towards Braunston.
I took out one of the few gels (remember I had forgotten to pick up a fresh supply in the previous CP) I had in my backpack and wolfed it down. I got into a wonderful rhythm during those 2-3 miles to the Braunston tunnel.
The tunnel soon came into view. The instructions had me going up a short climb on the left of the tunnel. I reached the top and got stuck again.
"At Braunston Tunnel leave canal, take path bearing RT to join metalled RD where TL to reach A361. Cross RD and STON up path. At path junction STON to steps on RT. Descend to rejoin canal at mouth of tunnel. "
At the top of the canal I was faced by an asphalt road that curved off to the left and ended in front of me. It gave way to a very narrow trail that went through tall nettles. On the right was a similar trail. I confidently took the straight trail. It soon curved to the right. The nettles and plants were at least shoulder high, if not higher, and it made for a difficult 100 feet. I lost confidence. I could see, over the top of the plants, what looked like an endless field on the other side! Where the heck was the metalled road? I retraced my steps. I went off on the trail to the right but that one did not feel right. I had no idea what to do.
I decided to follow the asphalt road to the left. Within a 100 feet I saw a small trail to the right. It came out into a huge, really huge, clearing through the middle of which was a walking path and on the other side of which were apartments. Ah! People!! There was a woman walking a bit ahead and I asked her how I could get to the Braunston locks. She professed ignorance of the locks but pointed to my right, far off to my right, as the direction where Braunston was. A couple of young kids too confirmed this. I lost confidence. I chose to go back to the top of the tunnel.
I took the trail that went straight ahead again. I lost confidence at the same place on the trail and came back to the top of the tunnel again. Now I was getting distraught and a bit concerned. Getting lost in a strange land is no fun at all.
I decided to go back to the clearing. This time the young kids told me about a road that lay on the other side of the apartments. Emboldened I started powering up the walking path. The path, for at least 200 feet or so, was alive with tiny frogs. It was around 6:30-6:45 p.m. and I could see them but not so well and I was a bit concerned that I would kill some of them. I gingerly made my way up the hill and soon found myself in a roundabout!
Gosh! Why another problem?? The roundabout had 3 choices - road off to my left, road straight ahead or one to my right. I have a very good sense of direction so I knew, instinctively, that the left and the straight ahead should be ruled out. That left the road on the right.
I crossed over and started walking. To my surprise, I soon saw a brown-orange road emerging from the field on the right. Directly across it, on the side of the road I was walking on, was a trail, beyond a gate (next to which was a home), that led steeply up a hill. I was sure this was the metalled road in the instructions and that the road I was walking on was the A361 in the same instructions.
I confidently power walked up the hill expecting to find steps at the top that would lead me to the canal. To my utter disappointment, the trail continued down the other side and had 2 branches that went left and right at the top to add to my woes. I continued straight for maybe 50 feet before I lost confidence again.
I quickly ran down the 0.25 mile long hill back to the gate and the home on the side. I rang the doorbell and, after what seemed like an eternity, the door eventually opened. The couple knew exactly where the canal was! It was indeed on the trail I had just come down. They gave me more valuable information - the steps were a mile to a mile and a half away. In fact, as it turned out, they were less than a mile away. I ran up the hill like a demon and continued to fly down the other side to the steps. I had lost 40 minutes or so in finding the right path!
I was happy again to be back on track. The trail right by the canal here was very muddy. I soon got past without any major soaking. A mile or so ahead I soon spotted Andy, Christian and Javed. I was happy to see them. Turns out they had spent an hour in a pub while I had been busy getting lost. I guess you know the course if you have run the Grand Union Canal Race, a 145 mile behemoth, before.
We now negotiated the next many miles as a team. I even got a few English gels from one of the runners. At 172.42 miles, Napton Junction which was the junction of the Grand Union Canal and the Oxford Canal, Javed, Christian and I decided to lie down and rest for 15 minutes. It was 9:00 p.m. and I texted Anu with my status. Javed checked his own phone for messages. Christian tried to sleep.
Down towards CP#7 we now headed. Javed and I were ahead of Christian. We alternated between running and walking. This we kept up until we reached Folly Pub. The 3 of us trooped in to buy food. Javed bought some Mars bars while I bought potato chips. This is when the world started tilting for me. I felt like I was on the deck of a ship that was listing from side to side! It was a scary experience.
I ate the 2 packets of chips and also had a bite from the Mars bar. We were soon on our way. Very soon after this Javed took off running. Now it was Christian behind me as we made our way to CP#7. It must have been around 10:00 p.m. that we both decided to lie down on one of the locks. We set the alarm for 10:15 p.m. and lay down. I still could not sleep. Neither could Christian. It was also getting a bit chilly. I took out the thin jacket and put it on. We soon started walking on. The bridges kept increasing in number. I kept consulting the laminated map again and again to get my bearings. CP#7 was near Bridge 136. It must have been a few miles from the CP that I mentally gave up. My brain was feeling the effects of sleeplessness. My blood sugar was low. The blisters were hurting. I had lost the will to fight.
How I still tried to fight. I hated giving up. Eventually I told Christian that I would probably drop at the CP. He ran past me advising me to fight and that it was only pain. I knew it was more than just pain. Everything that could go wrong had come together in those last few miles. It was like the Perfect Storm.
I was alone now. I texted Anu that I was probably going to drop. She was heartbroken and devastated. She advised me to get to the CP and then decide. She so wanted me to finish 250 miles! I did too but deep down I knew that I would barely make the 2:00 a.m. (11 hours from CP#6 remember?) cutoff. How could I gather all the stuff I needed for the next section, eat, change clothes etc. in 5 or 10 minutes?
I must have been at mile 181 at 1:00 a.m. Those last 2 miles were the toughest 2 miles I have ever travelled. I would sit under a bridge, turn off my headlamp, set the watch alarm for 15 minutes hence and would get up in 15 seconds to continue the fight. With a mile to go my headlamp started flashing. Low batteries. One more sign from the Universe! Everything was starting to fail. My system felt like it was shutting down. I replaced the batteries and continued on.
Kathy was standing outside the CP. I saw her and felt happy that I had finally reached. It was 1:48 a.m., 12 minutes before the CP closed (or so I thought). I could hear Javed and Christian talking. I put my backpack in a tent and lay down. Kathy brought me baked beans which I gladly wolfed down. Soon after I closed my eyes and tried to sleep.
Curiously Javed and Christian continued to eat and do their thing and did not leave until 2:20 a.m. or so. I thought that was strange since the CP should have closed at 2:00 a.m.
It is only recently that I found out that Christian, who had come into the CP 20 minutes before me, took out the same CP mileage doc that Anthony had sent us a few weeks before the race and showed Anthony that the CP was supposed to close at 3:00 a.m. and not 2:00 a.m. Anthony agreed and that's why they left at 2:20 a.m.
Gosh! Would I have stopped had I known that I had an extra hour? Probably not. I would certainly have slept for 30-40 minutes before making up my mind. In fact I was planning, had I made it into CP#7 with some time to spare, to leave as soon as possible and sleep on the trail somewhere! Whatever future race I run I am going to make sure that I confirm the cutoff time in every Aid Station.
I finally woke up around 5:45 a.m. Kathy was going about the CP putting stuff away in her car. She had loaded my drop bags too into the car. She is a beautiful human being. A wonderful poet and runner. She drove me all the way back to Streatley where I got myself a room and, after a shower, lay down to sleep.
It was around 6 or 7 p.m. that I went to the Morrel Room. I met Jonathan Kinder, the winner (just under 60 hours) and spent the next couple of hours talking with him, Dick Kearns, Alicja and Neil Kapoor who had finished together in 79 hours. Wow!
Hindsight is a curious thing. It glosses over our pain but makes us treat that self that decided to make a certain decision with no respect. I did so for the first 2-3 weeks. It is only lately that I have accepted that I did not fail in this race. I fought as hard as I could for 64 hours and 183 miles. I had fun every step of the way. I was grateful to be alive and to be able to cover such a huge distance and not be in any real difficulties except during the last 3-4 miles.
The nettles and the narrow GUC trail on the Oxford Canal between Napton and Fenny Compton finally got to me. I am going back in May 2010 to run the 145-mile GUCR as a means to coming to terms with the GUC towpath. This is so I can go back in 2011 and finish the Thames Ring 250.
The race was fantastic. I cannot even begin to imagine what kind of planning went into the Checkpoints and how to transport runner bags from one CP to another. Kudos to Anthony Taylor and Dick Kearns for putting on a fantastic show. Thank you both and your amazing band of volunteers who kept us fed all through the race.
Congratulations to all who started the race. You folks rock! It took a lot of courage.
Congratulations to the amazing 12 who finished. I doff my hat to you ladies and gentlemen. You do us proud! Christian and Javed finished in 96 hours.
I will end this race report with a poem. Not mine but one written by Kathy.
The Ballad of the Thames Ring 2009
The Start; StreatleyThe runners set off as the clock strikes ten
Aiming to get back to Streatley again
But this is no ordinary river run
Along the Thames in the morning sun
They set off at a conservative pace
Two-fifty miles is the length of their race
Checkpoint 1, 27.25 miles
At Hurley Lock they approach at a run
After suffering the heat of the midday sun
A short rest, refreshment and good natured banter
And set off again at a brisk canter
Kingston and Staines
Will be remembered
For causing runners pain
Not from sore feet, aching muscles, we find
But injuries of a more sinister kind
From sad, bad people whose idea of fun
To assault endurance athletes on the run
In that one thing our race was marred
By “happy slapping kicking” from society’s scarred.
Checkpoint 3, Horton Bridge , Yiewsley; 82.25 miles
Early hours of the morning, find my way to West Drayton
Checkpoint three’s somewhere near, but I’m at the station!
To find the location, I phone up Dick
Hope he’s not in his van, having a kip.
In ones and twos runners arrive by headtorch light
Looking just like they’ve been up all night!
Refreshments are given and blisters are dressed
Some nip into tents on the side for a rest
The canal side gets busy as we slip into day
Walkers, runners and cyclists pass on the way
A normal working day is their destination
Our retiring runners are given lifts to the station
Checkpoint Five, Tinkers Bridge, Milton Keynes; 130.2 miles
The Fiends, The Fiends of Milton Keynes
Whose roundabouts are so confusing
Strangers to this place drive around for hours
And the locals find this amusing!
Runners are lucky, the canal is their guide
To their little oasis by canal side
Tim’s rigged up lighting and stoves under bridge
China cups, kitchen sink, but alas no fridge
Tired runners come in and crashpads are found
Tents and cars or a blanket laid on the ground
Rajeev arrives, he’s desperate for sleep
Then spends hours on his phone, and he’s not counting sheep!
Bridgid runs in, a shopping bag has she
She’s been to all-night Tescos for retail therapy
With pub tales of borage, lemonade and brandy
To calm upset stomach, Immodium’s more handy
As morning dawns our closing time is nigh
We gently wake runners and send on their way
Take down electrics, pack food in Dick’s van
Then onward to the next stage of the plan.
Checkpoint Seven, Wharf Inn, Fenny Compton,; 183.17 miles
“The towpath is overgrown”, they said
“We nearly ended up in the canal bed!
On the path were these great big gaps
Covered by undergrowth like runners’ traps”
With nettles and wet grass up to their necks
No wonder the runners were getting quite vexed
With sympathetic words we sent them on their way
“It’ll be better from now on”, some of us did say
We didn’t know what lay ahead
But they looked a bit happier as onward they sped
On expenses Anthony bought us a meal
Cleaning moats and duck houses weren’t part of the deal
But maybe next time instead of our dinner
Anthony will buy us all a strimmer!
With strimmers, secateurs and hoe
Along the towpaths we will go
Of rivers and canals across the nation
Taming rampant vegetation
Making the paths smooth and neat
Respecting the runners’ weary feet
Under the bridge I waited with a lamp
For the last few runners as tired they tramp
Guided through the pub garden to checkpoint seven
A seat, food and drink may seem like heaven
But don’t hang about, no time to repose
This checkpoint is about to close!
After a sleep in our little camp
Saturday morning dawns, misty and damp
Rajeev is delivered safe and well
To the lobby of his Streatley Hotel
The Finish, Morrell Room, Streatley
The first runner arrived back on Friday night
Just before ten Jon’s goal was in sight
So round to Morrell Room this runner to see
He’s up and about, drinking cups of tea
And walking quite normal, looking just like
He’s been out on a few days leisurely hike
Not running the towpaths at a cracking pace
Four and a half miles per hour was his speed for this race
So respect due to those who have guts to compete
Even though in the end not all will complete
Whether you finished at Streatley or some other place
You’ve covered more miles than most runners would race
To run this race next time, a dream, do I dare?
But whether runner or helper, I plan to be there.