Sea to Source

Having previously run the JOGLE and C2C we were expecting this to be a piece of cake.  However, instead of a gentle 180 mile jog on well made paths along the riverbank, we had a 220+ mile cross-country come orienteering weekend over unmade tracks, ploughed fields, waist high undergrowth and numerous diversions.

Despite the demands of simply keeping to the path, we were rewarded with some fabulous scenery and spectacular sites. The landscape over the first few miles from the Barrier past the Millennium Dome is breathtaking in its sheer magnitude, whilst beyond Windsor and away from the tourists, some of the more remote sections were a delight to run. Further up above Oxford, the river narrows and becomes increasingly rural, meandering through the Cotswolds with just the occasional angler and assorted wildlife for company.  Upriver from Cricklade, it becomes a stream, then a ditch before disappearing altogether.  A modest stone in a field marks the official source at Kemble, but after the fun we had getting there, that was the best sight of all.

We also had our fair share of incidents en-route.  Just for fun we stopped off in Datchet and ran the ever popular Datchet Dash 10K, simply because we were passing by and it seemed like a good idea.  As it transpired it was a pretty good idea, as despite tired legs, we still managed to finish second in the men’s team competition narrowly behind Ipswich JAFFA.

Shortly after the race and back on the river, the second changeover of the afternoon went slightly awry when the baton appeared on the wrong side of the river about four miles downstream of Marlow Bridge.  Whilst we were shouting back and fourth across the water about the merits of carrying on or swimming across, a friendly boatman kindly offered to row the runners, baton and support bike across.  The only proviso was that his wife be allowed to put some Lippy on – just in case the photo appeared in Runner’s World!  (no kidding).

Finally, and just when we thought it was all over, someone managed to lose the keys to the minibus.  Without any shelter from the rain or means of getting to our dry kit we had no option but to retrace the route over the final leg to the stone until the lost keys were eventually located.

Undaunted by the experience we are already debating what will be our next challenge.  My suggestion is the Grand Union Canal from Brentford to Birmingham as it must be impossible to get lost – or is it?

A little (rant) about the route

Whoever is responsible for propagating the myth that the Thames Path is anything more than a dotted line on a map should be forced to run up and down the length of the Thames until they wear a rut along the river bank.

As a concept the Thames Path is great – the only major river in the UK which can be followed on foot from Sea to Source (or vice versa) – but it’s a bit of a misnomer to refer to it as a path – right of way would be a more appropriate description.  Whilst it undoubtedly has it’s good parts, some sections are overgrown or closed, signs are rare, sometimes illegible and often misleading.  This resulted in regular unplanned excursions from the Thames and at one point we even managed to follow the wrong river.

Next time we will know better…

Perhaps our biggest mistake was to run up the river instead of down it. There is a excellent guide for walkers that describes the path in minute detail, but unfortunately this works from Source to Sea.  Running in our direction entailed not only having to read the book backwards but also reversing the directions; left becomes right, after becomes before and so on.  The result more often than not was confusion and frantic mobile phone conversations.

The Team

The running team consisted of 9 men and 5 women of varying experience ranging from John O’Groats to Lands End veterans to recent converts to the joys of running. For logistical reasons they have been divided into two shifts each with their own mini bus plus support bike.

From another perspective (Jac Aldous)

The idea seems simple enough – follow the River Thames towpath from the Thames Barrier in Central London to the source in Gloucestershire. The reality was something else – the towpath does not always exist forcing detours beautifully signposted away from the river – but not back! Add to this overgrown paths, thick with stinging nettles and thistles – not the best things to be wading through in skimpy running shorts!

However, the event was great fun and a fantastic achievement not to have been missed. After all most situations look better in hindsight! One of my most endearing memories was waiting on the bank at Spade Oak Farm (in the middle of nowhere) for Jackie and Michelle to hand over to Ian and the slow dawning realisation that the blue and orange figures coming in to view really were on the opposite bank! Thanks indeed to a kind boatman who rowed firstly the two girls over to our side and then went back but made his wife row Colin and his bicycle over. All of this took some time when we were already running several hours behind schedule. The situation became more farcical when trying to give the boat a shove off after dropping off Colin as its outboard engine propeller was getting stuck in the riverbed so he had to raise the engine before we pushed. To this he remarked, “oh I forgot about that” switched it on and went shooting off down the river at speed!

Standing on the bridge in Henley at 10.30pm in the dark on Friday evening waiting for Jack and Colin to complete the last leg for the day from Hurley meadows, very tired from a 4.30am alarm call, very cold and very hungry is one of the memories that as time goes by will hopefully fade. All I know is that after then driving to the Youth Hostel in Beaconsfield a bed has never been so welcome.

The camaraderie of a group spending long periods in relative close proximity can only be experienced and not described. All I can say is a special thanks to the ‘afternoon crew’ plus Peter and Kay who became nominal members for a day, and the ‘morning crew’ for supporting us on the handovers – particularly Brian for helping with the van maneuvering. My enjoyment was down to all of you. I have to say that the teamwork in providing pit stop support for Colin on the bike at handovers became very slick with me normally applying sunscreen, someone feeding him, someone putting fresh water on the bike, and Michelle clearing the wheels of the all the undergrowth acquired in the difficult stretches.

The teamwork succeeded and did see us reaching the source at Kemble on Sunday evening as planned (even if a bit late). Just when we thought we had overcome all the difficulties and could start to relax with a late dinner and few glasses charged to toast our success, the loss of one of the mini bus keys somewhere in a field seemed beyond belief. Special mention to eagle eyed Margaret who managed to spot the keys in the long grass.

Overall a most enjoyable challenge – would I repeat the route again – probably not, but I’ll be there wherever the next one is organised for. Whether I would be as dedicated as Sam to attend I’m not sure as Sam flew in specially to join us from Japan on Friday, completed the event arriving home lunchtime Monday to go to work in the afternoon as he had to fly to the USA on Tuesday.

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