Monday, 9 February 2009

A Ham Sandwich Saved My Life

The following entry is written by my friend Sean, much mentioned in the pages of this blog, who found himself on 7 February running a 50-mile race that I'd withdrawn from (on account of undertraining, injury and accedia). This is his account of the experience ...

"Yes, a ham sandwich saved my life. No pickle. No mustard. Not a hint of cajun. Just a sliver of ham between two slices of white sliced bread, I think with a bit of butter on. As I contemplated, from an immodium and diaralite haze, the awful possibility of retiring at check point 2 of the Thames Path Ultra, a bare 18 miles in, the Squirrel drew the illustrious item from his bag of tricks and broke, well tore, a half of a half bit for me. I ate, and I was transformed. Never mind Gagnaire, the Fat Duck, Sat Bains, this was as important a mouthful as I've ever eaten. Much of the subsequent 30 miles was taken between building up to, and then coming down off, further ham sandwich highs, and bearing in mind that we only had two sandwiches, which we eked out over 3 further checkpoints, and also bearing in mind that this was one of the most improbably, beautiful, challenging runs I'll ever undertake (until next year, when Mr Joad is going to do it with us, because he has to), that's no small indication of the significance of a savoury snack on a day such as this. It's surprising how central a ham sandwich can become to one's being. So, my thanks to Karen for The Sandwich, and to the Squirrel for sharing it.

The run was stunning. Joad's initiative and instinct in signing up for it was correct: it's one of those runs one should do. And although the conditions underfoot were dire (crusted frozen snow, mud, little in the way of stuff you could run on until about 35 miles in when we ran through Reading), it was such a beautful, fresh, cold winter sunny day that you couldn't have wished for better, really. Dont let anyone kid you the Thames Path is (a) a path (it isn't); (b) along the Thames (it often isn't, the most notable diversion being through a housing estate in Reading); (c) flat (a reasonable expectation, but so very wrong, as the ramble through some mountainous range at around 30 miles demonstrated).

Thanks also to BGit, who prepared a Garmin with pre-loaded route, and the laminated maps. We seemed to be the only people with either. After the second time we'd followed some people completely the wrong way, we decided that BGit was a better guide than other people in Lycra. The term 'schadenfreude', the delight in the misery of others (a german term, of course) was, I think, dreamt up by a German on this very run, as s/he tottered down the south bank of the Thames at 25 mile or so, and saw a very pacey group of 'leaders' barreling along the north bank -- going back some 5 miles to the bridge they'd failed to cross. BGit -- we are eternally in your debt (though we need to talk about that railway bridge you wanted us to go over outside Moulsford).

I feel like Gwynneth Paltrow.

Thanks also to the Hornet, he of Boots, for a sack of snacks and treats. Flapjacks and gels that we were unable to keep down after about 4 hours, but which we knew had done us good, and which we knew might keep us alive if anything catastrophic supervened. And at about 6 hours, a handful of Sport Beans was almost as good as a ham sandwich.

Looking back, the 10 minutes we spent in the dark outside Henley trying to find our head torch, when we were a bare mile from the finishing tent, could have been better used -- but we'll know for next time, and Joad will benefit from our experience.

I have been asked, a lot, since the finish, what it feels like. Well, the hitting the wall bit is just like a marathon, except in a marathon you have between 6 and 8 miles to go, and you're expecting it. I didn't think I'd hit the wall at that point - we'd barely broken sweat although it was tough terrain - and I didn't expect that each of the 32 miles that followed would feel like the penultimate one of a marathon -- the one before you get the adrenalin rush that carries you to the finish. But there was an adrenalin rush at the finish, which was at the bandstand at the Green at Henley-upon-Thames. A cup of tea, a handful of crisps, a medal the size of a dustbin lid, then into the car and away, into the night -- it was just gone 6pm, it was dark, and it was over. Meike picked us up, relieved that we'd survived, astonished that we'd done it, drove us to Oxford where we were feted and fed by lovely friends.

Often after a race one can feel an odd sense of loss, of regret. All that preparation, and now the only thing in mind is the next race. This feels different, for now, as if it's an achievement that will always be there.

It was a glorious day, and I am still delirious. Thanks above all to the Squirrel, who not only shared his sandwich, and carried my coat for me, and pointed out both buzzards and the woodpecker, but was also the perfect companion for a first ultra. It's a good job Joad has put that vegetarian nonsense behind him -- this time next year he'll understand how a ham sandwich might also save his life."


  1. It's almost certain that when Joad does an ultra next year he'll have a whole bag of power bars, so neither a ham sandwich nor vegetarianism will be be an issue.

  2. See pictures of this event at: