Thames Meander RIP

I got a sad email today that another one of the great UK ultras has gone extinct. The organisers of the Thames Meander have announced that this event has become to big to be run as a family event and are calling it a day.

The Thames Meander was the best of the river races on offer. It took a 54 mile route along the river from Reading to Walton-on-Thames via Henley, Marlow, Maidenhead, Windsor, Staines and Shepperton. It was originally set up as an opportunity for those headed off to the Marathon Des Sables 6 weeks later to get a long run done. 10 years on it remained the number one event for those going to the Sahara. It was a simple but very well organised race and will be missed by myself and at least 200 others in the UK.

It seems paradoxical that the demand for ultra marathons and extreme events are rising yet some of the superior and more established events seem to disappear. The explaination I think is quite simple.

There are broadly 2 ways a race comes into existence in the UK (and perhaps abroad)

  • A small group of individuals or a club who organise 1 or 2 events per year in a particular area
  • A small company who have a portfolio of events throughout the year

There are many examples of the first type such as London to Brighton (gone), Thames Meander (gone), Grand Union Canal Run (still here), Dartmoor Discovery (still here) that exist purely because of the enthusiasm of a few individuals who really want to see an event happen. There is usually some history behind each one (Dartmoor was born out of someone going out on a long training run and getting lost, GUCR was Dick Kearn just seeing if it was possible to run the whole canal in one go, the Thames Meander was an effort to give the British MDS competitors something to train with).

The second type of events are again run by enthusiasts however it is by individuals who intend to make a living out of it. This is great as it means there is more stuff to do in the UK and they are usually very well organised. The portfolio of events that each company has tends to keep a few dozen employees in a job that they really enjoy and brings great races to the likes of me who are willing to pay for the privilege of doing them.

I do believe there is a difference in atmosphere between these two types of events but do not believe this is driven by how commercial they are. I've run good and bad events of both types and have my favourites like everyone else does. The key difference here is how each of them handles their own success.

For any commercial event company (or indeed business) it is simple economics 101, supply and demand. If their events become oversubscribed they just make them bigger or put more on. For example the incredibly enjoyable endurancelife series of 5 coastal marathons last year has now become 7 marathons. This may involve employing more people or those organising doing a few hours less of their other jobs. Companies have the benefit of scalability.

On the other hand take a group of people who are arranging one event purely for the love of it. They tend to be employed in some other area and once a year organise an event purely for the love of it. They will charge a fee which would just about cover the monetary cost of putting it on but probably not their time. This is not so much a job for them, it is a hobby.

The problem here is that the enthusaism of a few individuals is not scaleable as with a company and when the event becomes really successful it can have a real impact on peoples time. There is not the option to just put on another event or to make it bigger. I suspect that the reason that the Thames Meander was ended was because the enquiries and admin involved in admitting 200 runners (and maybe rejecting 200 more) was too much work for a small group of people and hence it is no more. I also suspect that getting permissions to run events, the prevailance of health and saftey Nazis and possible litigation by unhappy runners has just added to the burden of putting a race on like this. A company could just employ people to do this whereas a family couldn't.

I am sad that the Meander is gone as it was the best event of it's kind. I am also worried by the trend and hope that the GUCR and Dartmoor are not next in line. I'm sure that as long as there is a market for river and canal runs there will be an organisation willing to do it. This is fine, but I'll miss the days when I was running a race that was someones "baby" rather than a catalogue item.

When I grow up I want to have a baby. From the source to the estuary of the Thames is 180 miles. That is a fat one.