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Tuesday, December 21 2010

2011 plans

As previously mentioned, 2010 has been a relatively sucessful year, with 7 completed races, including 4 marathons, a very well-managed PTL (thank you Leo for pulling me up) and a new marathon PB. Obviously, my miserably failed attempt on Thames Source Quest (TSQ) casts a bit of shadow...

My plans for 2011 include the Hardmoors 55 to start off the season and maybe Hardmoors 60 to finish it. One or two marathons and other random races will feature opportunistically. I might try the Marathon du Vignoble d'Alsace, incorporating a "Spätzle Party" and a decent 12-course gastronomic menu during the race, each of them accompanied by wine. My favourite being at the Munster cheese and Gewurztraminer at 31km. No marathon wall after that. Or maybe not the same wall...

The TSQ will hopefully be attempted again, but I will change a few things to increase my chances:
  • This will be the only one major (i.e. multi-day) challenge for the whole year. This should allow me to focus more before the event, and not have second thoughts during.
  • Better physical preparation, including a proper training schedule and a 2 weeks rest.
  • Better psychological preparation, with more visualisation of the route. I might even record a GoogleEarth-based fly-through video, with milestones and potentially day/night effects.
  • Better hydration method: I didn't drink enough, probably because I had to suck hard on the purifying bottle. I might consider a pump-based system to fill-in a regular bottle. This will waste a bit of time, but might be profitable on the long run.
  • Carry less food as already discussed, in order to shave off one kilo.
  • Attempt a bit earlier in the year, probably at end of May, to avoid potential heat. This will also mean less daylight.
I am also thinking about another open project, the Paddy Buckley Round. But it will come second to the TSQ, maybe in late August.

I wish you all a great festive season and hope to meet you again on the trails in 2011!

Ultra plans

Friday, July 16 2010

TSQ equipment and food list

This is the exhaustive equipment and food list I have carried with me on my Thames Source Quest attempt.

  • shorts (Raidlight/Ufo)
  • T-shirt (Hardmoors 55)
  • socks, underwear
  • shoes (Salomon XA Pro 3D Ultra)
  • Buff (Hardmoors 110)
  • spare long sleeve T-shirt (Millet)
  • backpack (OMM Classic Marathon 25L)
  • purification bottle (Aquapure Traveller)
  • 45 route cards
  • time table + small pen
  • first aid:
    • Compeed
    • Ibuprofen
    • Paracetamol
    • 2 disinfectant wipes
    • 2 rehydration sachets
    • 2 Coalgant
    • Vaseline
  • head torch
  • hand disinfectant
  • survival bag
  • whistle (on the bag)
  • tissues
  • mobile phone
  • Muvi Atom camcorder
  • ID
I'm pretty happy with this equipment list.


Item Q.KCal/ug/uKCalg
SiS GO gel 10 90 70 900 700
Creme de marrons 4 200 85 800 340
Elevenses 4 204 50 816 200
Snikers 10 296 58 2,960 580
Bounty 5 268 57 1,340 285
Tuc 2 783150 1,566 300
mini Babybel 12 61 20 732 240
hazelnuts 2,000 300
rye bread 2 985500 1,9701,000
Total 13,0843,945

Plus 4x750ml water bottles for the non-tidal Thames section.

In the event of a further attempt, I might take a bit less food. Indeed, the bag was rather heavy and I don't think I would have eaten it all. For example if I just remove 5 gels, one creme de marrons and one rye bread, I would end up with about 3kg and still 11,500Kcal, increasing the overall energetic density from 3.32 to 3.8KCal/g.

Ultra food.

Thursday, July 15 2010

Thames 1 - Julien 0


As you probably know I've attempted the Thames Sources Quest, 296km from the Thames Barrier to its Source last week-end.

Thames Barrier
Thames Barrier at 4am

I left on Friday at 4am, carrying a bag loaded with 4kg of food (13,000KCal), 3kg of water for the first 50km of non-tidal Thames, and not much else.

Canary Wharf
Canary Wharf at 4:30am

The London section was a bit hectic, as the Greenwich foot tunnel was closed (just for the one night I was running...) and I had to follow the South Bank that I hadn't recce'd. Also, a number of the path sections are on private grounds and closed at "night", that is until 7am. I got lost a few times and made a lot of detours. Sometimes unexpectedly bumping into known places (see below). But London before 7am is relatively quiet for a change, with only a few dog walkers and (rather fast) runners.

Tower Bridge
Tower Bridge

The Circle
Known location :)


Battersea power station

Things went relatively well until Hammersmith, where I started to feel a bit weak, and even had minor cramps in the quads. Maybe I didn't eat enough, as my stomach was not in a great mood? I decided to push until Richmond anyway (44km) to complete the first marathon and have a brief rest there. Unfortunately, I had to stop a few kilometres short from Richmond to sit down and I even fell asleep... until a dog woke me up by licking my face :) I had a bit of food and felt better, ran to Richmond, sat down and ate again. Things went a bit better from Richmond to Hampton Court (57km).

As I reached Hampton Court at about 12 noon, the sun was getting pretty hot (30°C, native Englishmen would say scorching), and again I was running very little. Walking more and more, and even sitting down from time to time. Passed Shepperton Lock (67km), I was walking most of the time. The day was gorgeous though, and the Thames looked great. I really felt like diving in.

The Thames near Staines

I had my first sip of purified water from the Thames just passed Teddington Lock as my spring water bottles ran out. I have to say the water didn't look amazing at that point, but it became much better upstream from Hampton. The purified water tasted good, but felt a bit heavy. I'm not sure whether it's the nature of the Thames Water, the iodine or my stomach. In the end, it was easy to integrate the Aquapure Traveller 15 minutes dwell time into my rythme: I just had to count three periods of 4 minutes run + 1 minute walk. I thought I drank a lot at the time, although my log sheet later told me I only took water 4 times, ie. only 2 litres in 7 hours... I also passed water a total of 4 times if you're interested, but only once in these last 7 hours...

Aquapure Traveller
Sampling the Thames Water

Considering that I hadn't enjoyed much of my day, that I was walking most of the time and stopping often, that I was already late by over 4 hours and therefore that I wouldn't be able to reach the source, I decided to give up at Staines (76km). I also had the PTL at the back of my mind and didn't want to jeopardise my and Leo's chances on a project that I would not be able to complete anyway. Essentially, during and after this attempt, I felt like I had run twice as much... (which would still be only half of the TSQ).

As for the "guess my time" competition, John Kynaston got the closest bet with a DNF at 200.5km. Yannick gets the best water in and water out guesses. Congratulations!


There are numerous reasons, which combined together led me to give up. First of all, I was not well prepared physically and mentally. Especially on the latter, I had done a lot of visualization in the past, but not close enough to the actual attempt. Secondly, with the PTL only one and a half month later, I was not properly focused on the Thames.

And there are a lot of other minor reasons, such as the heat, a poor nutrition during the first 4 hours and a poor hydration towards the end. Also, running by Hammersmith (where I live and train) after 35km is a bit demotivating, as it essentially felt like I hadn't covered any ground when reaching the first marathon. More generally I've been relatively tired over the last few months for various reasons. Finally, I might no be such a good runner on flat courses, as I found the UTMB flat sections boring for example?

I also might have been overestimating myself. Thinking I would be able to run any distance at any time, without much training... It might be true up to a marathon distance, but certainly not much further.

Anyway, this is a good wake up call before the PTL!

I think the TSQ remains a great challenge, and I still want to complete it one day. Next year maybe...

Ultra fiasco

Wednesday, July 7 2010

Thames water purification on the run: a solution

After a brief survey of what nasties are waiting for me in the Thames, I tried to find a suitable water purification system. And it's not easy. Ideally, it would be a all-in-one integrated system based on a hydration bladder with two pipes: one regular pipe for drinking and another connected to a pump+microfilter that could be stored in the backpack side nets. No need for extra chemical and no need to remove the bag to either drink or re-fill. I actually know of one such system, the Lifesaver Hydrocarry, which is only available to the military. Otherwise, you would have to build it yourself (*).

Back to reality now. I've considered the following purification systems:

System Main Viruses Carbon Flow Weight


L/min g


Katadyn MyBottle + ViruPur 0.3 yes yes 0.2 260
PureHydration Aquapure Traveller 0.2 yes yes ? 128
PureHydration PureLink (inline) 0.2 yes yes ? 120
LifeSaver Bottle 0.02 yes yes 2.5 635

Ceramic only

MSR Hyperflow microfilter 0.2 no no 3 209
Katadyn Mini 0.2 no no 0.5 210

Ceramic + carbon

MSR Sweetwater microfilter 0.2 no yes 1.25 320
Katadyn Hiker 0.3 no yes 1 310
MSR Sweetwater purifier 0.2 yes (chem.) yes 1.25 397
Katadyn Vario EU 0.3 no yes 1 460

There are a lot of contradictory opinions on all filters. I need to make a few trade-offs on weight, what is filtered, and the flow. I've decided to make no compromise on water quality and therefore filter everything, which is debatable, since the viral risk is relatively low in the Thames. This means I need a 0.2 to 0.3 micron filter for protozoa and bacteria (every system has got that), activated carbon filter for chemicals and taste, and some form of virus elimination. I didn't want to put extra chemical after filtration, which makes the whole process a bit fiddly.
Besides, all the systems with a nominal flow under 1.5L/min put me off a bit. Indeed, this is the highest achievable flow and could be much worse depending on turbidity. Users have reported flows down to 0.2L/min with some systems, ie. 5 minutes to fill in 1 litre. This is not suitable on the run.

So I was essentially left with the all-in-one bottle systems. With such systems the flow is less of an issue, as the filtration happens whilst drinking, ie. during the run and not during the filling-in breaks.

I had decided to get sponsored for the purification system. This decision was not only driven by the financial aspect, it's also to make sure that the system is actually going to work. Manufacturers want good publicity, not the story of a runner who either had to stop due to a filter malfunction or even got poisoned using their product. So I assumed they would accept only if they trust their system to filter the Thames water appropriately. I've contacted the three short-listed manufacturers. Two of them didn't bother to reply and the third promptly accepted to sponsor my challenge, but then didn't follow up for some reason.

Therefore I've decided to buy the Katadyn Mybottle Purifier and the PureHydration Aquapure Traveller, the LifeSaver being much heavier and bulkier. My original idea was to carry both, as if one system fails during the run for whatever reason, I won't be stuck with no water. Given the weight and volume they take, I might actually take only one in the end. In order to choose, I've tested both of them using some fresh Round Pond water from central London. I have to say it looks rather green at the moment and the dense population of ducks/swans/geese doesn't help with the water colour.

Round Pond
The Round Pond during the water sampling

I've put side-by-side the untreated water and the two others. The untreated water had a green-yellowish taint, but didn't actually smell. Both purified waters looked clear. The main difference between the two systems is how they eliminate viruses. The MyBottle relies on eletrokinetic filtering, whereas the Traveller is iodine-based. This technical difference leads to a number of very practical implications:

Weight 260g 128g
Flow very slow slow but easier
Taste clear iodine
Delay instantaneous 15 min iodine dwell time

Obviously, the weight and flow are in favour of the Traveller, but I'm not sure I can see myself waiting and timing 15 minutes. Or maybe I can turn this downside into a feature by setting a routine: fill in, wait 15 minutes, drink half-a-liter during the next 15 minutes, repeat? As for the iodine taste, it can be removed using vitamin C, but I'm not sure how to do that in practice, as that would probably mean transfering the filtered water into another container.

Ultra water.

(*) This could be done rather cheaply using for example the Aquapure inline filter and a bladder, but you would face some watertightness issues when incorporating the second pipe in the bladder.

Monday, July 5 2010

TSQ: it is on!

The weather is good so far, the tides are low, the date has been set for the Thames Source Quest: I'll leave from the Thames Barrier on Friday morning. The hydration is sorted too, complete article to follow in a few days.

Thames Source Quest

I'm not extremely well prepared, so I will take it easy. If things don't go too well, I might even indulge myself with a little nap or a burger in a riverside pub (in which case it wouldn't be unsupported any more, but I'll make it clear). Therefore, just like many ultrarunners do, I've set myself 3 main goals in order not to be too disappointed:
  • Gold: The Source (290km, the full story)
  • Silver: Oxford (204km, 70%, the longest distance I've run)
  • Bronze: Purley-on-Thames (145km, half-way)
Although the tracking software I've been writing is more or less working, I still have a few reliability issues in case of 3G or WiFi connection loss, so I'm not sure whether the live tracking will be available at all or temporarily during the challenge. In any case, the route I'll follow is available on GoogleEarth and GoogleMaps and I will post live updates on twitter. I'll also try to take a few pictures and videos with my tiny Muvi Atom camcorder.

Following John K's example, I've decided to run a "guess my time" competition. Because the outcome is uncertain, you are to make two guesses:
  • the time I'll take to complete the TSQ if I can finish (hours, minutes, seconds)
  • how far I'll be able to run otherwise (kilometres)
Additionally, you can also bet on these two water-related questions, although I'm not sure yet whether I'll count that accurately:
  • How many times I take water from the Thames?
  • How many times I will pass water?
You might think it's a joke, but I might indeed monitor closely my fluid intake and loss due to the relatively warm weather. Guesses can be submitted as comments. Closing time: Thursday 08/07/2010 @ Midnight BST. Small gifts for the closest bets.

Ultra ready?

Friday, April 30 2010

TSQ pace guesstimate

I've been spending quite a bit of time to try to estimate my speed on the TSQ. The time I'll take to complete the challenge will not only determine the amount of food I'll need to carry, but also the ideal starting time that would minimise night running and enable me to catch a train back promptly.

1. Completion time

Unfortunately, it is really hard to estimate how long I will take to run the whole path. I've spend quite a bit of time developing a spreadsheet to simulate the run with linear and logarithmic speed decrease. The results are not very satisfactory because I've not got much to compare with, and therefore the split time estimation evaluation is a bit random. The longest I've run in similar conditions was London-Brighton, which is only 90km, not even a third of the TSQ!

The Hardmoors 110 and the UTMB could provide a better estimation on the long-term but the nature of the underfoot conditions and the ascent makes any comparison difficult. We could use the Naismith's rule (1892) to evaluate the impact of the ascent on the overall speed:
1 hour for every 3 miles forward, plus 1/2 hour for every 1000 feet of ascent.
This would lead us to consider 3 miles (5km) flat equivalent to 2000 feet (600m), in other words 120m of ascent worth 1km flat. In this case, the UTMB 2007 would be equivalent to 163+8900/120=237km on a flat surface and the Hardmoors 2008 to 177+5700/120=224km. This would lead to a finish time of about 45 to 48 hours on the TSQ, but I'm not sure to what extend this kind of estimation is valid.

Also, there are very few races of that sort of length out there to see how other runners might perform. The Thames Path Ring (250miles) is one of them. The runners passed at checkpoint 7 (a convenient 295km) between 43 and 64 hours, with a large majority (12/14) between 55 and 64 hours. Looking at these results, it would be rather optimistic to think I could complete the TSQ in much less than 50 hours.

Considering these two cues, I'm targeting to complete the TSQ in 48 hours, but wouldn't be surprised to take up to 6 hours more or less than that... I was hoping for a bit less (and therefore a single night out), but that's probably not going to be possible. Using the logarithmic speed decrease model, 48 hours can be achieved by starting at 9.5km/h and dropping roughly 2.6% per 10km, that's a finishing speed of only 4.3km/h :) . Manageable.

2. Starting time

Given the large uncertainty in the finishing time it's not easy to optimise my starting time. On one hand, I will run through two nights if I take 48 hours, whatever the starting time. That said, if I start (and therefore arrive) at dawn (04:00), every hour faster than 48 hours will be deduced from night time and every hour slower will be added to daylight time, which is optimal. On the other hand, given that the trains roughly run between 10:00 and 22:00 on Sundays, I should really target to arrive (and therefore leave) at 16:00, leaving a safety margin of 6 hours either way. 04:00 or 16:00? The two optimal solutions are diametrically opposed! Maybe I should just go for it without thinking to much and improvise on the way?

This is the resulting spreadsheet on which I spend quite a bit of effort. On the way, I increased my astronomical knowledge in order to automatically calculate the day/night/twilight parameters at a given date, time and location :) .

thames path schedule
Click for the PDF full version

As for the pace, I'm considering using a 9/1 run/walk strategy from the start, ie. 9 minutes running and 1 minute walking. This has been proven effective to reduce muscle fatigue on the long term, and therefore reduce the slow down coefficient.

3. Route

There is a bit of a choice in terms of route, as the path runs on both sides of the River in London. I've mostly chosen the shortest options :) . Not because they are shorter, but because they are closer to the river and therefore propose a "purer" line as well as being easier to navigate. This is especially true in the docklands and around Battersea.

At Weybridge the regular path is relying on a small ferry to cross the River. An alternative bridge option makes a detour away from the river and adds about 2km. When running upstream, I'll have to decide between the two options 2km ahead of the ferry crossing, ie. at Walton Bridge. If at that point I decide to go for the shortest 2km option but the ferry doesn't actually run, I'll have to run back to the bridge option for a total of 8km. If I decide to go for the bridge straight away, it's 4km. In short, that's a guaranteed 4km or a bet between 2km and 8km. Tricky...

4. Mapping

I've mapped the whole path on Memory-Map (1:25,000) and generated 45 A5-size cards, as illustrated hereafter. I have to say it took a while to generate a decent result. This is because the Memory-Map software can't automatically section a route into cards*. You have to position (and sometimes rotate by 90 degrees) manually the boundaries of every single card without being able to see the other ones... I'll probably leave aside the central London sections and print 40 cards on tough paper, that is only 10 A4-size double-sided sheets.

Thames route cards

Money-wise, it comes out a bit more expensive than slicing the regular OS maps but cheaper than the laminated ones:
Memory-MapOS ExplorerOS Explorer Active (laminated)
Memory-Map Thames Path: £100.00
Thoughprint**: £6.00
160, 161, 162, 168, 169, 170, 171, 172, 173, 180: £7.99 each 160, 161, 162, 168, 169, 170, 171, 172, 173, 180: £13.99 each
Total: £106.00Total: £79.90Total: £133.90

I guess I've done enough homework... Just need to run now :)

Ultra logistics

* I've written a 27-line Python script that does the job rather well (it generates 43 cards, but with strictly no overlap), but I have no way to integrate it into Memory-Map...
** £14.99 for 25 sheets

Tuesday, April 13 2010

Thames water purification on the run

As previously mentioned, one of the only source of water during the Thames Source Quest (TSQ) might be to drink from the Thames itself.

Ebullition would be the most radical method, but is not practical whilst running. Most commercially available portable water purification systems are based on microfiltration, which performs well against "big bugs" (protozoa and bacteria), but fails against viruses. I would need to use ultraviolet or chemical treatment to get rid of these nasty guys, most likely iodine. Remains the chemical pollution that might be solved partly with an activated carbon filter. I've contacted Thames Water to get more information on the exact nature and distribution of the pollution, but they tend to be very vague, only providing qualitative appreciations such as "bad", "good", "very good". If you have access to more accurate data, please let me know.

Here is my current plan for filtering:

PollutantExampleSize (microns)Solution
bacteriaE. Coli, Salmonella0.2-0.5microfiltering
virusesHepatitis A0.01 to 0.3iodine (or UV)
chemicalDDT, heavy metals-activated carbon
bad tastesilt
-activated carbon
vitamin C

As for the microfilter, I'm considering either the Katadyn Mini (18x8cm, 210g) or the Katadyn MyBottle (26x8cm, 260g). The latter is more practical and includes an activated carbon filter and iodine resin. But this all-in-one design is not suitable for turbid water, which might be the case of the Thames.
I've discovered much more recently the Lifesaver Bottle (30x9cm, 635g), which is claimed to filter at 15 nanometres (0.015 microns)! It would therefore remove all the viruses as well as the bacteria. Plus it's meant to work with muddy water. During one of his talks, the inventor actually filters Thames water (or so he says), with a few much more disgusting add-ons and drinks it. Convincing enough! The main drawback: it's three times as heavy as the Katadyn products.

One funny thing with most websites advertising portable filtering, is that all the "action" pictures seem to involve crystal-clear mountain lakes or springs from which I would drink straight away anyway...

Any comments?

Ultra purification.

(1) Strictly speaking a simple water filter is sufficient.

Thursday, February 11 2010

What does 'unsupported' mean?

As I start to plan more carefully the Thames Source Quest (TSQ), I'm wondering what approach to take in terms of support. Interesting definitions of 'unsupported' are provided on [1] and Fastest Known Time [2]. The main disagreement seems to be related to water supply.

This really means no external support at all from any human being and therefore carrying all the supplies the whole way, except what can be obtained from natural sources. Water should only be obtained from natural sources according to [2], but could be supplied externally according to [1]. That said, the definition of a 'natural source' of water is not as obvious as it seems. If a spring in the mountains is natural and a free tap next to a river lock is not, what about a pipe draining the water out of a spring? I would say natural, but I can understand some would disagree. Food could potentially be harvested from natural sources too [1].
[1] prohibits the usage of phone calls, but surprisingly reckons that being offered a shelter and water is acceptable. The position of [1] here lacks a bit of coherence and seems biased towards classifying the Marathon des Sables as unsupported, which I cannot agree with. With all due respect to the toughness of this race, I can hardly consider unsupported an event where tents, water and medical crew are waiting for you every night.
Furthermore, a valid issue pointed out by [1] is how to react to local by-passers offering water, food, shelter or whatever else. It would be rude to refuse...

This means that no support team is following the runner. However, it is possible to grab whatever is on the way, including buying in stores or hide supplies in advance [2] (as at least one team did during the PTL last year). This is what I've done (for the water only) during my solo London to Brighton run, and this is also the spirit of the PTL. Because nothing is black and white, [1] also differentiates between several forms of self-support, the most permissive one including a crew following loosely the runner. I'm not too interested in that, so I won't discuss it in more details.

A team is following the runner the whole way to provide food, drink, spare clothing and all other needs.

As a summary, I would consider 'unsupported' the following:
  • Water can be obtained from natural sources only, like [2].
  • Food must be carried or obtained from natural sources only, like [1].
  • Shelter must be carried (tent) or natural shelters must be used.
  • Phone calls are prohibited as they offer mental support, but sending out SMS about your progress is acceptable... as long as you don't read the answers :) .
In one sentence: take everything you want from the nature and give back everything you want to whomever you want. Now, this is only my definition. I'm not saying I'm going to run the TSQ unsupported as yet :) .

Open for debate.

Ultra unsupported

Tuesday, September 15 2009

Thames Source Quest: the time has come

The project of running the whole length of the Thames Path National Trail (295.7km) from the sea (Thames Barrier (1)) to its source via London and Oxford has been on the back-burner for quite a while now. The Thames Source Quest (TSQ) has been thought about for 2007, 2008, and 2009... It might eventually happen in 2010! I've considered three main variations so far:
  • 7 marathons in 7 days (coincidently the exact distance minus 350m)
  • 3 days of approx. 100km
  • 1 single stage
The 7-days option is fairly symbolic and has been done by Leo from the Chameleons in the past. The 3-days option has the advantage of running everything by daylight. Obviously the latter remains my favourite choice :) . More specifically, I would like to complete it in under 48 hours, ideally in 40 to 42 hours.

Obviously, this project has nothing in common with the Alps and their crazy ascents. The Thames goes down by only 110 meters between the source and its mouth. But there is some form of "purity" in the route that is greatly attractive. It couldn't be more natural, as it simply follows a river from one end to another, without (much) human considerations. Running towards the source is also quite symbolic of an escape from London and a quest for pure water. Indeed, I hope to be able to drink some water straight from the river once I'll be at the source. I guess I've got some kind of weird attraction to the Thames, probably loosely derived from some form of Victorian romanticism.

My current idea is to run solo and unsupported, but that might change later. Unsupported means that water supply will be a serious logistic issue. It's simply impossible to carry enough water for the whole length. Open shops/pubs might not be easily found, especially towards the more rural end and during the night. There is one obvious solution to this problem... drink the Thames water itself! Obviously after a bit of purification, and from the non-tidal section only (ie. passed Teddington lock). That would increase quite a lot the connection between the runner and the river, providing not only the route, but also the subsistence. More on that topic later.

Also, a few other Thames challenges appeal to me:
  • cycling in under 24 hours
  • walking in 7 days (42km/day)
  • canoeing (2) in 2 weeks (21km/day)?
  • swimming (2) in 20 days (15km/day)?
Ultra river.

(1) The Thames Barrier, although preventing the spring tides to get into the Thames, is not technically the limit between the river and the sea. The Thames mouth is officially located at Southend-on-Sea.
(2) I might want to perform those from the source downstream.

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