Say the words ‘enjoyable’ and ‘run 90 miles’ in the same sentence and most people look at you in a funny way. But what can I say; the Toad Challenge really was no ordinary race. A three day EPIC adventure along the Thames towpath from Oxford to Walton-on-Thames in Surrey, it started with several months of long, summer mileage, a few days of careful packing, and finished with a brilliant but tough three days. There are a number of reasons why I’d describe the race as ‘fun’:
- Spending three days in the company of some fantastic, inspiring people that I hope to stay in touch with (and even run more events with in future).
- A really friendly, inclusive atmosphere: it didn’t matter whether it was your first or 50th ultra or if you were running or walking the event.
- A scenic trail route through pretty riverside villages.
- Getting to eat all my favourite foods in the week leading up to the event – crisps, rice pudding, mashed sweet potato… the list goes on. Imagine carbing up for a marathon times about ten.
- Then eating a bit more over the course of the event – fueling up on pasta, garlic bread, sponge and custard.
- A friendly race team and crew who ensured the weekend ran seamlessly.
- Checkpoint fuel supplied by 9 Bar, which made a great alternative to sickly gels and energy drinks.
- Chatting to some really interesting people along the way and picking up useful tips (who’d have thought that a good way to keep a water bladder clean and mould-free was to dry it with a hair dryer or put it in the freezer?)
- Hearing about lots of new races and adding a whole load more to my wish list.
- Spending the weekend doing something I love: running.
On arriving at race HQ just outside Oxford on day one, it was clear there were some pretty seasoned ultra-runners taking part. But for every runner there was someone walking the event and the race was split about 50:50 with runners and walkers. There were also a few runners with large Marathon des Sables packs, using the event as multi-day ultra-experience (in fact, the company organising the event was conceived when founder Neil was running the MdS himself and saw a gap in the market for UK multi-day training events).
After a pre-race brief we set off for the first day of running, along the Thames towpath to Moulsford (slightly under 27 miles away). I got chatting to the small but mighty Gemma who’d completed the Ultra Trail Mont Blanc’s sister event, the Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix (CCC) 100k race only a few weeks previously. Although I possibly bored her stupid by going on about Rory Bosio all weekend and scared her husband (the one and only Jez Bragg!) by insisting he featured in our finish line photos, she was absolutely brilliant company over the course of the weekend and sowed the seed for plenty more future races.
Gemma’s pacing helped carry me round the final six miles of day one (she was a ball of energy), when my legs started to tire. This day was without a doubt the toughest, despite having fresh legs and being the shortest by about five miles. Even the sunshine and my Dad unexpectedly popped up along the route to support couldn’t detract from the fact that there was still a hell of a long way to go.
After arriving into a riverside school which would be the base for the evening, having a lot of tea and cake to refuel, then an evening meal of carbs (including sponge pudding and custard, school dinner style), we were treated to a ridiculously inspiring talk from mountain climber and fellow ultra nutter Alistair Sutcliffe. We arranged our sleeping bags in the school sports hall and bedded down for lights out at 10pm, ready for the next day’s running.
At 5:30am the lights came back on and after packing and breakfast we were off for a second day’s running to Marlow, 32 miles downriver. I set off in a small group which included Gemma, ultra-running machine Susie Chan, Shaun and Scott (who somehow managed to get stung twice by a wasp through his socks). Chatting away, we missed a route sign and got a bit lost, adding an extra mile on to the route, but it didn’t really matter; I was in great company and my legs felt reassuringly fresh.
At around the 20 mile point we came to Henley and a flat, concrete path, which made a welcome change to the bumpy grass and trails we’d been running on previously. This provided a much needed psychological boost; handy, as I’d been running alongside a well-meaning chap who’d spent the past five miles picking out rowing points of interest along the river. It really was a case of ‘pick up the pace or slowly go crazy.’ The change in speed felt as good as a rest and for the next few checkpoints, rather than hanging around, I refueled quickly and pushed on to the finish.
I was nervous about the final day, as this was venturing into the unknown. I’d done long back-to-back runs over two days in training and hoped this would carry me through. My legs were niggly during the last night and when I started running my left knee felt sore, but with 32 miles left to go it was a case of just trying to get back into the rhythm and hoping it would hold up.
I set out with the same group as on the second day, plus another guy who’d only entered the final day of the race. On fresh legs he was running extremely strongly and pushing the pace to around 8 minute miles. We chatted away and he expressed he wanted to finish in around five hours. After about ten miles the path narrowed and became a single track. When I next looked around I’d lost him and I didn’t see him cross the finish line. I later heard from another runner who’d passed him that he’d mentioned that he had set off too fast, which I felt a bit sad about. Although I hadn’t been the one setting the pace, I suppose I wondered if he might have slowed down sooner if he’d been running alone.
I ran the majority of the rest of the race alone, passing a few other runners and chatting along the way. With just the void and the occasional thought flashing across it to keep me company, it was a case of just pushing ahead to the finish line. My legs felt like they didn’t belong to me; stiff and tired yet moving of their own accord. I reached a mental low point after the final checkpoint at 26 miles and the final few miles of the race lasted for what seemed like an eternity.
When I crossed the finish line, weirdly it felt like an anti-climax, as I’d been willing it to come for so long. Shortly after me was Gemma, then Susie. It came as a huge shock to have placed first female and I don’t think it really hit home until later that day when the flood of congratulations came through on Twitter
All in all the event was a great introduction to the world of multi-day ultra races and brilliantly organised by Extreme Energy.
- Total distance run: (nearly) 92 miles
- Total time taken: 14 hours, 30 minutes, 43 seconds
- Blisters sustained: none (miracle)
- 9 bars eaten: lots
- 9 bars that made their way into my bag and home with me: about 11
- Nights spent in compression gear, wondering if it would make any difference: 2
- Ultras entered since the race: 1 (the Centurion South Downs Way 50 miler)