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45 miles in 11 Hours! – How 1st Finch won the 3 Towers Hike in 2010

45 Miles in 11 hours! – How 1st Finch won the Three
Towers Classic Hike in 2010

Ian Montandon

I got gradually more and
more involved in Scouts into since my son, Robert joined 1st
Finchampstead as a member of Greenfinch Scout Troop a couple of years ago. Now I
help run the Friday evening troop and help out at things like the annual summer
camp. This is not particularly hard since I enjoy most of the outdoors
activities the Scouts do like camping, mountain biking, hiking, kayaking etc.
One other thing our troop does every year is to enter teams in a race called
the Three Towers hike. This is a 45 mile, timed, mainly off-road walk starting
by the river Thames and taking in many ancient rights of way in Berkshire and
Oxfordshire, finishing quite near the starting point in the town of Reading.
Obviously it’s quite a challenge – in 2009 my team came second but the constant
pounding on the unseasonably hard ground meant that by the end we all had such
painful blisters that driving or walking were extremely difficult activities
for several days…

This race is for teams of 3
individuals. All team members have to finish the race to win. There are shorter
courses for the younger age groups – my 13 year old son’s event was is 15 miles
long. All teams have to take basic food, drink and safety equipment with them
in case of problems which must include waterproofs, survival bag, first aid kit
and a sleeping bag.

So this time we thought we
would do it differently – better footwear, lighter packs, more training and a
meaner attitude… except that we were all too busy to do much actual training
and a last-minute substitution of a team member caused by injury meant that
Simon Halser and myself  were to be
joined by a novice 3rd man, Gordon Halliday-Vargas, another
Greenfinch Leader…

Each team sets off at 3
minute intervals and you have to have your personal cards punched at each of
the 14 checkpoints along the route. Cruelly, there are comfortable chairs at each
stop – so if you sit down it’s incredibly difficult to motivate yourself to get
up and get going again!  Best just to
re-fill water bottles etc and go. A total of 28 teams were entered, we started
as team # 20, calling ourselves “Finch Wanders”. 1st Finch also
entered two other Classic teams for the 45mile event, a Scout Plus team (25
miles for older Scouts) and five Scout teams (15 miles).

The Finch Wanders team strategy
was very simple: Run/ jog the first few miles to overtake as many of the teams
ahead of us as possible, to try to demoralize the them as well as the 8 teams behind
us. As long as we stayed in front of the teams we had overtaken, we should be
ok, but we would need to watch out carefully for teams which might have started
after us and catching us up…


Despite one of our team
getting painful leg cramps every few miles, by the halfway stage we had
overtaken all 19 teams ahead of us and although we had very sore feet already,
were feeling pretty pleased with ourselves! But in one very long, straight gentle
climb up a hill another team caught us up! This was pretty serious – we could
not go any faster due to the leg cramps problem reoccurring whenever time we
tried to run or jog again.  The other
team turned out to be team #26, which therefore started 18 minutes behind us…
This team consisted of the 3 young and fit-looking Godding brothers aged 17 to
23; they were flying. We walked alongside each other for a mile or so before
they pulled ahead of us. Apparently they had all been involved in the event
since childhood as their father was one of the organizers and they had always
dreamed of winning the adult event as a family unit. In previous attempts one
or other of them had had to retire before the end, but this they felt was to be
their year!

We were demoralized – how
could we not only overtake these fit, young guys but get ahead of them by at
least 18 minutes, with less than half of the distance remaining? Our legs were
hurting, our heads were dropping with fatigue. But then we noticed that they
were just staying a few hundred yards ahead of us and not gaining any further
distance. In fact we started to catch them up again – it seemed that the
youngest brother was hurting more than us, and slowing his whole team down,
muttering about wanting to retire (of course we did not try to change his mind).
We overtook the now slower team 26 and carried on our way!


This photo, taken at around 
the 25 mile point, shows our team of three in front, with team 26 behind
us – the guy in the black t shirt 6th from the front retired a few
miles later leaving the way open for us to win.


By this time I felt that
(despite regular sock changes) I definitely had developed some blisters, but
there was no point in stopping to find out, just had to walk through the pain…
The problem I think is more related to the pace rather than the total distance
walked – when you walk fast or jog, the impact on the feet is much worse than
if you are walking slowly. It’s this constant pounding plus the sweat that
produces blisters I believe. In fact it turned out that the footwear changes I
made (lightweight trail shoes instead of heavy walking boots, custom-moulded insoles
and extra gel padding) prevented the rubbing that causes most blisters but
could not stop the bruising of the soles of the feet that made walking so
painful the next days!

By the 35th
mile, things were going ok, although relatively slowly due to painful feet. We
were averaging less than 4 mph now. Then panic struck – we heard that one of
the teams we had overtaken (team 18,, i.e. starting 6 minutes before us) had
obviously paced themselves better and was catching us up. In our panic we
missed a turn and ended up having to go around three sides of a large field
instead of just the one – we arrived at the third from last check point  only a few seconds ahead of the rival team,
meaning they were only 6 minutes behind us on adjusted time!

The last few miles were
pure hell – we could see team 18 never more than a couple of minutes behind us,
but not able to catch and overtake us… 
Eventually we made it – in 11 hrs and 22 minutes, finishing only 9
minutes ahead of team 18 overall.  On the
drive home we discussed how we could improve our time next year, before
concluding: – quit whilst you are winning…. NEVER AGAIN!

I have done a couple of
half marathons and used to row and play rugby competitively, but I have never
done an event as tough as this one. Only 12 teams out of the 28 starters
actually finished as complete teams… Next year I will thoroughly enjoy just
helping our other Scout teams train and supporting them during the event