Published on May 12, 2015
T60 Night Race Report
I’m sure on most occasions the perfectly charming Bowyer Arms pub in Radley would be a pleasant place to quench a thirst on an early summer’s evening. It wasn’t the hen party – already flamboyantly raucous for 7pm – that made for incongruity but the field of 34 ultra-runners limbering up and kit checking ahead of the T60 Night Race. We were undoubtedly the ones being eyed up suspiciously by the prosecco sippers as we stank up the place with muscle rub. Time to move outside for a race briefing.
Shane Benzie, who oversees the T-Series of races including the legendary T184, strikes the right note between casual and authoritative; for many this is a first experience of self-supported racing and hitting the balance between knowing there’s someone looking out for you (participants are GPS tracked via GoTec7s) rather than straight looking after you is vital. The self-navigating 60mile route from Radley to the source of the Thames includes three checkpoints but only water is supplied at these, everything else required needs to be carried from the start. Thus reminded, there was nothing to it, but to do it…
I was tackling the T60 with Robin Pemberton, my frequent running buddy and partner in crime at last year’s Atlantic Coast Challenge, and, as we were fortunate enough to live within striking distance of the T60 route, we had been able to undertake a series of recce runs. Although not strictly necessary in the early stages, the preparation was to prove absolutely invaluable as the miles ticked by.
The Thames Path to Oxford is manicured, wide and a pleasure to run on. Passing the college boathouses, riverside pubs and the ludicrously pretty Christ Church Meadows the T60 could lull a runner into a false sense of security, but our experience of the latter stages kept us focused as we stuck rigidly to out 9min run / 1min walk strategy. This admittedly looks a little lame when you break into a walk barely a kilometre from the start line.
Beyond Oxford the light had faded and headtorches were donned as the path became more broken underfoot. We had by now also fallen into step with another runner, Phil, happy with our run/walk pace. Whilst Robin and I are content to talk absolute nonsense for endless hours it’s always a pleasure on long runs to find others to share the experience with and help with the verbal distractions that are needed when you’re digging deep.
CP1, approximately 14miles in, was a chance to switch around some kit, top up with water and grab a quick bite from the backpack. For those unfamiliar with self-supported events the station probably looked forlornly bare (what no Haribo?) but the CP staff – excellent throughout – did exactly what they needed to do: supplied water, checked we were okay (these things are relative) and heaped on the encouragement. Time to move again.
Despite our laborious course prep we almost immediately headed off in the wrong direction – it’s ‘CP euphoria’ that does it, feeling all cocky and refreshed there’s a tendency to be less rigorous with concentration as you head out of an aid station. The mistake cost us no more than 500m and on the upside we did get to save a lamb from a hole (although Robin pointed out we might have scared it down there in the first place.) Back on track we ran for a while with a Canadian runner called Simone, more great company and another reminder of why I like running in these events – I’ve never met a boring ultra-runner.
We slugged through what is inevitably the lowest ebb on any night run, those hours between 1 and 3am when core temperature has dropped and the mind wanders to thoughts of sensible things like hot meals, early nights, warm beds. We were buoyed though by the news that we were sitting somewhere around 20th in the pack, a solid mid-field position that made us more content to switch to easier 5min run / 2min walk splits.
Through CP2 and the village of Lechlade and the briefest hint of dawn light helped Robin, Phil and me move more fluidly as we unexpectedly reeled in a number of other runners. How many had we passed? Five? Six? Possibly more, and they all looked as surprised as we did… This was the section when our recce runs really came into their own. Away from the easy to follow Thames the route becomes decidedly tricky in places, its mercurial nature exacerbated by tired minds, but both prior knowledge and the rising sun made the going relatively easy.
That, perhaps, is a slightly premature statement of smugness. Heading through the village of Cricklade we were ambushed by someone taking photographs and instead of concentrating and going the right way, we showboated for the camera, mucked about and heading the wrong way. This time the error cost us a good 10 or 15 minutes – not massive in the scheme of things but that’s 10 minutes away from stopping, from a hot shower, a cold beer. Damn it. I spent a substantial amount of time coming up with increasingly sweary ways of describing the photo hunter (although with hindsight I’m sure he’s a perfectly nice chap, sorry.)
Through our last stop at CP3 and the Thames all but disappears, replaced for long stretches by the vast expanses that make up the Cotswold Water Park. You never feel (or look) your best when you’ve been running through the night for 11hours and here we were running into an increasing number of ‘civilians’, cleanly scrubbed and trying to enjoy idyllic Sunday morning walks with their dogs. We may have reduced local property prices.
As we approached what would be the final village on the route – Somerford Keynes – Robin and I were busy regaling Phil with a not very interesting story about a woman walking her dog that we had seen in an identical spot twice before out here. We rounded a corner and there she was again. Same place. Possibly she’s a tourist attraction… But what this did mean was that she was a navigation point for us; we had exactly five miles left to run.
It was slow but the three of us kept at it, only allowing one extended walk in the penultimate field so that we could put on a good show, relatively speaking, once we hove into view of family waiting at the stone that marked the start of the Thames and the end of our race. There was no questioning how we wanted to finish: together. All three of us laid our hands on the stone as one. Job Done.
The T60 is a deceptively tough race. On the surface navigation looks straightforward but is often far from, and although there’s little in the way of elevation gain/loss the trail is invariably unforgiving and there’s the added ‘bonus’ of being largely self-supported. As an event the organisation is low-key (as it should be) but impeccable; we found encouraging words of support at every turn and were welcomed to the stone like returning heroes. Which of course we were…
Ollie Stoten and Karen Hathaway were first man and woman home in the T60 Night Race both setting course records with 10:00 and 10:27 finish times respectively. Robin, Phil and I took joint ninth with 13.42.
Full details of the T-Series at tseriesracing.com