7 Mar 12 by James Elson

TP100 Abandonment

Before a full post race report is written I wanted to make sure we got a message out about the late abandonment of the race, why we made the impossible decision to pull runners out so late in the day and the events that led to that decision. There are no doubt a lot of questions as to why a race going perfectly smoothly up until that point was pulled during what were harsh but not abnormal conditions for a March day in Southern England. 

Each of the runners who were stopped at the final 2 checkpoints have been contacted. I want to thank each and every one of the people that were stopped, for the unbelievable level of understanding and co-operation they displayed on Sunday once they learned of our decision to pull the race. I have personal experience of being pulled from a 100 mile race against my own wishes and whilst my experience  did not come as late as 91 or 95 miles (just 57) it is an extremely bitter pill to swallow. All of those runners who were pulled will have a chance to race again next year and finish but they will each be listed as official finishers of this race. 

A brief timeline of events: 

The rain began at the finish line at 6am or just before first light on Sunday but the wind (10mph) and temperature (8 Degrees) were not significant factors at that time. During the morning, the temperature dropped to 1 degree celcius, it began to sleet and then snow and the wind speed raised significantly which gave a wind chill temperature of -4 degrees. That change occurred dramatically quickly - in a period of just 2 hours. We began to receive calls reporting very cold/ shivering runners from some of the aid stations, it was to my bitter disappointment that Little Wittenham and Lower Radley had both gotten through all of their butane canisters by that stage. Neither were slated for hot food or drink prior to the race, but we endeavored to make sure that every aid station from Cookham (mile 38) onwards had access to hot water or facilities for making it for both safety and runner comfort reasons and this was mentioned to runners at the briefing. Between 10am and 12 noon on Sunday we started receiving runners that were suffering from cold related illnesses in at the finish, and reports from both Abingdon, Lower Radley and the course sweepers that runners were in great difficulty. Clearly the issue was that the ground was being soaked through and going was extremely slow in thick mud and water making un-runnable for anyone left on the course. The slower going reduced runners' ability to retain core temperature and that led to a very dangerous situation. We included survival blankets in the mandatory equipment for this very reason, but the conditions deteriorated so much that this measure was clearly insignificant. Many did not have wet weather gear because the conditions to that point had been relatively moderate. 

Between 11am and noon we had two runners collapse with severe hypothermia, requiring immediate assistance from two of our three ambulance crews and both were taken to hospital due to the severity of their condition. Both runners are now ok and recovering at home. One in particular was extremely disappointed having had to seek medical help just 2 miles from the finish. The finish line medical team treated or helped over a dozen runners suffering cold related injuries.

I would personally like to thank any runners that remained with those suffering from the cold and staying with them in very very tough conditions, sacrificing their own finish time and energy in the process. Stuart Shipley is the only name I have of somebody who did this, but I know that there are more out there and I would love to hear from you if you were one of those people.

By 12 noon we had received another dozen runners who had been moving through the very worst of the conditions we saw and each one finished wrapped in as much clothing as they had access to/ bin bags and or survival blankets. Some runners were quite incoherent on finishing and had to be immediately escorted inside Oxford Ice Rink whom had opened a warm bar for us, given access through the emergency doors and made provision for us in the way of hot drinks and survival blankets beyond those that we had at the finish line tents.

At 12:05pm we made the decision that any runners still on course were in critical danger of suffering from hypothermia/ cold related illness. At that point 48 runners were still out on course. Our decision was to stop all remaining runners at the next aid station and to get any others that could get off of the course more quickly elsewhere, to do so. Of those 48 runners, everyone was brought in to safety by 2:26pm when the race was closed.

The key factor in the reason for the abandonment, was the speed in the change in conditions. Because runners had been treated to warmer temperatures and dry conditions throughout the day and night on Saturday 3rd March, the huge drop in temperature, increase in wind speed and heavy rain/ sleet caused many to be caught off guard, short of necessary waterproof gear. Drop bags were available at Abingdon (mile 91) but things changed so fast that many simply couldn't get access quickly enough to sufficient extra clothing, or had passed the point where they could have picked up extra clothing to stay warm enough. We felt that the risk of somebody becoming dangerously ill on an inaccesible part of the course, leading to collapse and potentially a fatal situation had reached critical. At that point we had to make the extremely difficult decision to abandon the race with our sole remaining aim, to bring all runners in to warmth and safety as soon as possible. 

Of the 48 runners on course when the race was abandoned, 32 were between Lower Radley (95) and the finish (100), 8 between Abingdon (91) and Lower Radley (95) and 6 between Little Wittenham (82.5) and Abingdon (91). In total 114 runners finished the full course including those between Lower Radley and the finish and 14 runners were stopped by race officials - 8 at Lower Radley and 6 at Abingdon. Each of those runners would have gone on to finish the race under their own steam and will therefore be listed as official finishers of the race and be given awards as such. The inaugural Thames Path 100 therefore had 128 finishers. 

I would like to thank the Aid Station Teams at Abgindon and Lower Radley for dealing so efficiently with the situation and for heading out on to the course in atrocious conditions to help runners to safety. To GB Emergency Medical Services and Dave Weeks our medical director for managing runners requiring medical support so well. To Sarah Thorne our course sweeper from Streatley to Abingdon who assisted the final runners to safety. To Lower Radley College for opening the boathouse up to us and to Oxford Ice Rink and the management there who acted so quickly to allow us into their bar area open up their doors to runners at the finish. Our number one priority will always be runner safety. Given the situation in the future, we will make the same call once again. The two big changes we will likely make for 2013 are that we will insist on wet weather gear as mandatory equipment, and that any outdoor aid stations in the final quarter of the race (Little Wit and Lower Radley) have a more extensive supply of butane for hot drinks.

My biggest thanks of all go to the 14 pulled runners for their understanding and support of the decision we made. 

A full race report will be posted shortly.

Any issues or questions regarding the abandonment decision can be sent directly to me at [email protected]