She was utterly magnificent. The mermaid. Beautiful and grotesque at the same time and about four times the size of me. Her tail slithered just under the surface of this remote part of the Thames as her scales caught the low winter light and sparkled green and blue. It was unnatural but brilliant, peaceful but also disturbing because I knew, deep down, she wasn’t really there.
It was day two of my seven day challenge to run the length of the Thames, self-supported, from source to the barrier. And I was about one delirium away from declaring my trail shoe as its own principality and me as prime minister. It’s accurate to say, things had gone a little wrong.
I set off on Monday 5th December with a little running rucksack and a heart full of excitement about embarking on a seven day, 184 mile trail running challenge. To me this was going to end 2016 on a high, after what has been widely reported as one of the more testing years of this millennium. My parents gave me a lift to Kemble in Gloucestershire, where this great river begins, on a cold December morning as the sun was slowly starting to rise.
Here I met film maker, Frit Sarita Tam who had seen my story on Instagram and asked if she could document my challenge at the start and finish of each day. After a scramble over a few fences and a frantic scurry across a railway line, Frit and I finally found the river’s source, modestly signalled by a stone with a fading inscription which I imagine if legible would read something like “Lorna, what the F$$$ are you doing”.
I garbled out a few words to Frit and her camera to herald the start of my great solo adventure and took off down the wintery trail with all the promise of Fivel in search of America. That day I watched the infant Thames grow alongside me as I ran alone through remote fields and passed glassy reservoirs in the crisp winter sun. I followed the little signposts and marvelled at how clear the water was in these rural chapters of the Thames’ story. No floating coke cans or rusty trolleys in this section of the river.
Knowing that fuelling is not a strength of mine, I was militant about keeping my fluids up and taking in regular nibbles of the rice balls my parents had packed me off with. I ran for hours, at times excited about being so alone with only nature as my companion. At other times, pretty intimidated by the lack of human life. Aside from a few tweaks and niggles, I was in high spirits and bounded along this first trail marathon to successfully reach Lechlade, well within the daylight timeframe I was aiming for. Frit came to meet me at the bridge and I gave yet another rambling interview, buoyed that the first day was done. But also aware I had six still to go.
But within the course of the next 24 hours, my fate took a hairpin bend and this story of trail and tributary soon became one of trial and tribulation. Fast-forward to the end of the second day. I was a mile away from my finish point in Oxford, and was facing my ultimate fear; running in the dark. Dusk had caught up with me and I was trudging through the eerie fading light to reach safety.
A thick fog had cloaked the river and rain was pouring down my neck. I had no head torch and my body was in such deficit that I was struggling to take on food. I was about to finish a 30 mile trail run but that final mile felt longer than a very boring corporate training course I was once sent on (which has become my barometer on how slowly time can pass). Each step was like one of its breakout sessions where I, caffeinated to the eyeballs, would have to participate in yet another role play exercise.
It had all been going pretty well until mile 15. I’d run through heavy fog, deep mud and drizzle for most of the morning. At one point I missed a gate with the Thames Path symbol and had to do a Mission Impossible style shimmy under a low hanging electric fence wire to get into the right field. Quite early on, I lunged into a deep puddle of icy water leaving my feet wet for the rest of the day.
But up until mile 15 – all those things were still just part of the adventure. I was feeling relatively good until my head became heavy, then my legs and then weakness flooded my entire body. And of course, there’s the small matter of the mermaid. My mind was playing tricks on me, filling my head with images and figments. Perhaps because I had barely seen a soul out on the path for hours, shapes were starting to take on human forms and I could see figures in the shadows that weren’t really there.
When I did finally make it to Oxford, there was no relief or sense of accomplishment, only anxiety. I went straight to M&S and grappled cack-handedly at the shelves for food, snatching items that made no gastronomic sense whatsoever. (A bucket of mini-Scotch Eggs with a caramel wafer? Sure).
That night in a pokey guesthouse I had a series of nightmares that I was drowning in the Thames. I kept waking up in a pool of sweat despite feeling cold, my legs jittering, overwhelmed by nausea and stifled by panic. I have never known my body to communicate with my brain with such violent messages. Every single cell was telling me I need to stop. T
he next morning, I made the very hard decision to let my body off the hook. I paused my journey on Oxford Bridge and made a teary call to my mum to send for the broom wagon. After releasing my parachute I spent the next few days, whilst lying in bed, trying to rationalise what went wrong. The short answer is, I had a virus. A few days before it had started to show signs but in the throes of excitement I put it to the back of my mind until running 53 miles of muddy Thames path sealed the deal. By the second day it had started to manifest and distracted by symptoms, I also failed to take on food at regular intervals.
It’s been over a month now since I dropped out and I have done very little with my body since then. It’s also taken this long to feel like writing about it but I am glad I waited because now I can give you a better-rounded account and not a 20,000 word dissertation full of self-loathing. When you have to drop out of a challenge it feels like an utter failure. Whilst there were several scientific, rational answers, all my brain wanted to do was berate me for being weak, not having the stamina, being ridiculous for even thinking I could do it. In fact, for a few weeks after pulling out, I was horribly mean to myself which made my recovery slower.
But, there comes a point where you have to stop being a dick and accept that you aren’t the only person on earth to have missed the bar somewhat. You need to acknowledge your mistakes and that it wasn’t your day but mostly understand that some stories need the adversity to make them interesting. Imagine if Harry Potter was just a story about a tween that got into a good school and never had to fight off an evil Lord that was trying to kill him and everyone he held dear. Or if Cinderella just became a princess without being bullied by her wicked step sisters whilst scrubbing their floors. It would probably be as boring as that corporate training course I went on. And they wouldn’t have learned as much.
Around the time of my Thames howler Patti Smith accepted the Nobel Prize on behalf of Bob Dylan by performing an arrangement of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”. It was one of those performances you occasionally watch that comes out of nowhere and hits you right in the head. Of course, it was sung beautifully in Smith’s soulful way, but what made it even more moving and personal to me was that she seemed to forget the words after the second verse. Smith composed herself, apologised by saying “I’m sorry, I’m so nervous” and carried on singing to the end. What I realised when watching her was that forgetting the words and stopping the entire Philharmonic Orchestra half way through the verse, didn’t negatively affect her performance at all. Instead, Smith just sounded more powerful and the vulnerability she showed made her voice all the richer.
So just as Patti Smith’s song was done in two parts, so shall mine. I’m going back to the Thames once I have sorted out a knee injury and built up my strength and fitness. Hopefully this slight hiatus will only make me more determined to push on.
Thanks for everyone’s support so far. This river will be run.