Relentless Forward Momentum

#RelentlessForwardMomentum by Joey Rossi
My experience of the Thames Trot Ultra Marathon Footrace

The response nearly everyone gave me when I told them about the event I was intent on tackling, was… WHY? A reasonable, justified, response. I have to agree, the idea of running for 50 miles is excessive. In an attempt to justify this to my critics who believe I’m bonkers, and to myself, I have been forced to come up with many reasons and this in turn only motivated me more. (It would be easy at this point to reel off a load of cheesy, one line, motivational sayings but i’ll try and resist my inner personal trainer).

If reading this blog inspires you to continue to read motivational literature, I would recommend one book ‘RUN’ by Dean Karnazes. If you have already read this, then you know where I’m coming from. I came across this book whilst on an activity holiday with my girlfriend in the summer of 2013. I read it cover to cover and on completion I closed it, turned to Victoria who was soaking up some rays on the sun lounger and I announced “I’m going to run 100 miles”. Poor girl I think she wanted to throttle me.
I searched out ultra-marathons on my return to England, looking for an event which would ease me into the world of ultras. I came across ‘The Thames Trot’, a 50 mile ultra from Oxford to Henley. I have friends and family who live in this area; I had an idea that the terrain was flat and the hard pack path which runs alongside the Thames would be an ideal running surface.
“Why put off what you plan to do tomorrow when you can do it today” (Sorry I couldn’t resist one cheesy saying!).

Before I knew it, it was done.  It was booked. I then proceeded to send the link to my nutty running friends to see if I could tempt anyone with the challenge. The idea that this run would push the boundaries of what I had achieved in the past excited me. I have a huge respect for anyone who conquers their goals; be it a 5k fun run or a marathon. There comes a time when you have achieved these challenges and you instinctively start looking for new ways to challenge yourself. For me, if it scares me, then even better!

“You don’t realise your potential until you have discovered your boundaries and pushed through them”.

If it all went wrong and I couldn’t complete the distance on the day, it would still be an amazing experience, and at least I have the inner drive to give it a good go I thought. It was time to start preparing.

Leading up to the event:
I started by researching training plans online. I found some useful programmes on ultra-marathon websites which you can download for free. This was obviously  a great starting point but I realised this training programme wouldn’t just slot into my lifestyle, so I re-modelled it in a spreadsheet to fit my working and social schedule. I am incredibly  fortunate  to know an experienced ultra-marathon runner and champion of the Lakeland 100 mile race, Lizzie Wraith. She kindly looked over my training programme and suggested some changes to the schedule including a three week build phase;  increasing the total mileage each week followed by a recovery week of low mileage to allow the body to recover and break up the monotony of the consistent training. Wise words and top tips from Lizzie over a coffee at Bath’s renowned Society Café, and I was set to go, with 3 months to start preparing my body.
I had built up a good base level of fitness throughout the summer season having competed in a few triathlons and road races. In October, I competed in the Bournemouth marathon and had high hopes of setting a personal best. This however didn’t go to plan following a nasty cough and cold during the week leading into the event. I got to the half marathon mark and my legs said ‘no more’ and I cramped up , topping me in my tracks. However, I hobbled through the finish in a disappointing time, but respectable time. It left a bitter taste of failure. It had been a long season, peppered with high and lows.  I took the rest of October off to rest and to let myself recover.  I returned to training in November, well rested and raring to get back to my training programme.
My first planned training run was on a crisp and cold November day. I set a target of an hour and a half of steady paced running, well within my comfort zone. I wore my running rucksack to start getting used to wearing it again and carried water and nutrition. An hour into the run and it felt good to get out again. I had missed the sensation of running. If you ask any runaholic,  they will agree their motivation to run is so high it’s actually harder to stop running and take a break than continuing to put miles in on the road. Unfortunately, my first run back didn’t go to plan. I felt my right knee getting tighter and tighter until I was forced to stop and walk home. I was gutted. I hoped it was just a one off. It wasn’t. During the next run, the pain kicked in again after just 30 minutes this time. Time to take myself off to the physio. He confirmed I was injured with ITB syndrome, also known as runner’s knee. He prescribed a course of treatment including core stability, stretching and rest. This to say the least this was frustrating. If anyone reading this has been injured you can appreciate the exercises from a physio feel easy and pointless. I struggled to deal with this injury through all of November and December. However, all of a sudden as quickly as the pain came on, it went away. My perseverance had paid off and I was running freely again with one month to go until the big event. My training had not gone to plan but I was running again, pain free, and I was committed to sticking to my goal of running this ultra. The worst thing I could have done at this point was to attempt to cram a load of miles in and exhaust myself before the event. So I held myself back, accepting that my training hadn’t gone to plan, but I would be on that start line ready to give this ultra my best shot.
Pre-race preparation:
Predictably for February, the weather wasn’t good leading into the event . A lot of the course had to be diverted to avoid the Thames path. A large section of the river had burst its bank, leaving little of the tow path clear to run on. The night before the race, we made our way to Henley and I laid all my kit and nutrition out. I had worked out with the help of my colleague, Paul Ransome, how much energy I would need to consume during the course of the event. This was calculated by reviewing energy burnt in previous runs. It looked a lot, but I knew I would have Victoria waiting for me at each of the 5 check points. This would remind me to eat and make sure I didn’t run the tank empty. Last minute stretching, another read of the race pack and a good meal and I was ready for the race.

The race:
The journey to the start was a nerve-wracking  45 minute drive.  The butterflies had set in resulting in a building nervous energy. However, the meeting point was relaxed and the atmosphere was very different to previous marathon events I had done. The camaraderie between the competitor was remarkable, everyone was conserving energy and chatting freely about the upcoming challenge. We all familiarised ourselves with the race pack and kept warm in the pub. My main concern was the amount of self-navigation required and the realisation that this was very different to your standard road race. Navigation is not a strong point of mine and had been made more difficult due to the diverted course route. As the race got underway I relaxed into a steady pace and my nerves were settled by running in a pod of about 15 others who were able to follow the lead of others who knew the route.

Start of the Ultra 50 mile race

I was lucky enough to get a good conversation going with another competitor and we paced a steady run though checkpoint 1 at 8 miles in. A quick energy gel and a hello to Vic and we went on our way. The conditions through this next leg got extreme. They had picked a route through farm land and flooded fields and it got very muddy. We managed to keep a decent overall pace under the 10min mile mark but it had got inconsistent due to the conditions. I was happy to see the next check point at 13 miles and got a good feed down and took some layers off to help keep me cool. I ran the next section by myself and was lucky enough to have some music to listen to. Vic had made me a playlist which was excellent because I didn’t know what was going to come up next. This kept me entertained to the next check point at 25 miles.

Joey signs for 25 mile marker

Joey signs for 25 mile marker

Amazingly, I still felt really good at this point and some friends had come to see me which kept me upbeat. Another feed and a change of socks  which felt really amazing! Setting off for the next section I was pleased to hook up with a couple more running friends and we chatted away up to 30 miles. We were all feeling the strain by this point and our running strides had all become a little short. Still we had a little celebration running over the marathon mark, a PB for myself and again when I achieved my age in miles at the 30 mile check point. Another quick feed and a fill up on energy drink. I had worked out a genius treat food consisting of a wholewheat pitta bread filled with Nutella and banana; washed down with an energy gel, this was a great combination.

Joey looking fresh

30 to 40 miles took me to a dark place. Even my power music wasn’t keeping me running by this point and I had to employee a walk/run strategy. As much as progress was slow, I kept moving forward and kept the next check point in mind, breaking the run down in my head into smaller, more manageable chunks. It’s interesting where your mind takes you at this point. The pain was increasing  and my concentration was inconsistent. I had to feed whilst running on this section, chewing sweets whenever I could. My run had turned into a bit of a shuffle and my pace had dropped. I kept reminding myself there is a finish line to this event and as long and I keep forward momentum I would get there.


Joey at the finish


40 miles was awelcomed check point. Surprisingly, I didn’t want to stop for too long. In the back of my mind I thought the longer I stop the longer this event takes. It was starting to get dark and so the head torches went on and it became increasingly difficult to navigate the course. A wooded section threw up many hazards, including exposed tree roots muddy streams and style;, I was as stiff as a board. The finish was tangible. My senses were alive, even through the extreme tiredness.  Dropping down into Henley was an incredible feeling, I had to concentrate on keeping someone in front of me in view but I knew I could finish. And there it was a big inflatable finish line with success written all over it. This had been a long journey, battling through injury and inconsistent training. The feeling of completing this beast of a run finally sank my emotions took over.  A cup of coffee and post-race cake had never tasted so good! I had done it. I had completed my biggest challenge yet.

Joey finishes Ultra Marathon

My ultra top tips:

– Read autobiographies or stories which inspire you
– Pick a goal which scares you, but also excites you. If you always do what you have done, you will always get what you have got
– Set yourself a plan which fits your lifestyle and commitments
– If your programme doesn’t go to plan, have belief that not all is lost, but re-asses your goals. Don’t attempt to cram your training in
– Listen to what your body is telling you. You can run through aches but pain is a signal that something is wrong. And persevere with your rehab, it will work
– Stretch
– Life can be short and it is better to regret the things you attempted, than regret not giving them a go.
– Don’t be put off by a big goal, but break them down into manageable chunks
– Surround yourself with positive people and remember their words of advice when things get tough.
– Listen to a playlist someone else has made for you. This is a great distraction
– Enjoy yourself and make a positive effect on yourself through movement

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