Back on form?

After the hoardes of runners had taken off ahead of me at the start, some 16 hours earlier, I was astounded to hear from the aid station staff, that I was placed 10th, although their ambiguous questioning ‘Do I know where I am?” I took to be a less than subtle geographical based medical enquiry given the state of my outward appearence at 2am in the morning.

Obligatory pre-race selfie?
Obligatory pre-race selfie?

The run had been a lot quieter than this same race I had done last year, but I had foolishly not made the connection that this was because I was ahead of the bulk of the 265 starters running along the Thames tow path from Richmond to Oxford. In fact, by this stage, about 78 miles into the race at the Wallingford aid station, I had hardly seen anyone for the last couple of hours, with the exception of what I assumed to be the headtorches of my fellow competitors in the distance behind me, which I felt compelled to check regularly and which were strangely spurring me on a lot more than at any time in past races.

Other that a short road half marathon at Fleet in the middle of March, I had done little of note since the disappointment at the UTMB in August last year, after which time I was considering whether it was time to hang up my ultra boots. It seems just as well that I persevered.

In the end, last year, this was the only 100 mile race I completed, although as you might gather from the title of my previous blog, I felt I had not done as much training as I needed to persue such a distance and in the end I scraped in around 23:10.

At the start of the race this year, my concern was more around how far I would get before the rain started, such was the forecast, but with the experience of knowing the route, I had set myself the ambition of trying to beat my longstanding 100 mile PB of 19:15 from the Cotswolds 100 in 2010. Anything can happen in a 100 miles though, so my game plan was to take things steadily.

Startline briefing (Image credit - Centurion / Stuart March Photography)
Startline briefing (Image credit – Centurion / Stuart March Photography)

I got the train up to Richmond and arrived in plenty of time, along with many other competitors taking the same route from the station to the Old Town Hall in Richmond. When we arrived the place was already abuzz with runners and crew and the Centurion Running Staff checking kit for mandatory equipment, before giving out race numbers. I was through this process fairly speedily, but nevertheless stayed indoors as long as I could in order to keep warm.

I met up with a few people from previous races, including Stefan Klincewicz (a local friend from Guildford), Nick Greene, who ran the SDW100 the same year I did, 2013, who I then met in Leadville, and Andy Landells, the fireman I had met in Ouarzazate in Morocco on the way to the MdS in 2013 who had almost joined our tent. It’s a small world.

After only a very brief time, the organisers called for the competitors to move to the tow path for a briefing, where they went through the usual encouragement for those attempting 100 miles for the first time and also a couple of diversions from the normal route – to be expected over that sort of distance, but not as a result of flooding as my races along the Thames have been affected many times in the past.

Start – Richmond – 10:00am, Saturday 2nd May

The race commenced at 10:00am sharp and I allowed the masses to go ahead of me. We had been informed that there were 265 starters and I was expecting to be about half-way down the field at the first aid station. Even so, it was a slow and steady start for most and we hit our first obstacle (from memory it was a single-file wrought iron gate to the tow-path which most of the runners were queuing to negotiate. I jumped over the fence, with a couple of other runners and, in retrospect, may well have gained many places at this point. Who knows.

Richmond Bridge
Richmond Bridge

Although the route goes through the suburban outskirts of London, it is surprising how much greenery and trail there is along for the first few miles, and although this is undoubtedly just a veneer along the meandering river, it nevertheless quickly allowed me to settle into my rhythm for the day.

At the start of what you know is going to be a long day, the time generally seems to pass quite quickly though, and the small group of spread out runners of which I had become a part, soon found ourselves in Kingston where we crossed the rivers for the first of many times.

On my ‘runs home’ which I have done on occasion, I run through Kingston from London and then pick up the river on the opposite side to that which we were running today. It is still strangely familiar though, and as we rounded the bend past the majestic Hampton Court palace, I reminded myself that we really must take the children there for a visit.

Our foray to the north bank was short lived and we crossed back via a busy road, having to stop (amazingly, for the only time during the whole race) at a pedestrian crossing. I resisted the temptation to stop my watch as a few of us waited for the traffic to calm before moving on and then it was a mere 30 minutes or so to the first stop at Walton.

Aid 1: 11 miles – Walton On Thames – 11:42am

With nothing more than a quick stop for coke, some of the delicious watermelon, which became my staple diet for the day, and portion of banana for the road, I was on my way. The aid-station crew were as happy, friendly and motivating, even this early in the race, as they were at all the stops throughout the day, and my thanks goes out to them for the time they all volunteered freely to help so many achieve their aims throughout the day.

Walton-on-Thames
Walton-on-Thames

We continued along south of the towpath, but soon hit a bridge crossing where navigation, or previous experience in my case, proved invaluable. I called ahead to a couple of runners who I realised had missed the marked route, turning over the new bridge at Lower Halliford. For the next few miles, we all ran at a comparable pace, keeping our eyes out for the red and white Centurion tape to keep us on the right path.

We alternated through the small villages and nature trails which had briefly departed from the river through Shepperton, where the famous film studios with a rich British history are located. I was sure we also skirted around a car park which had been used as one of the final aid stations on the “Thames Meander” I had run in 2008, part of my training for the MdS in that year.

From Shepperton, we picked up the north towpath again and it was a short hop through to Chertsey meads, opposite Bridge Wharf where I worked for many years, but which was almost 20 years ago now, and the factory buildings I used to work in have long been turned into ‘desirable’ riverside apartments.

There was quite a long section after this, along a one-way tarmac road, underneath the M3 motorway and through Laleham and then the wonderfully named Staines, where I noticed there were fewer runners than there had been, or at least we were all proceeding at an equitable pace, and hence our positions were static. We crossed back to the south bank again at Staines.

My aim at this stage was merely to keep moving for as long as I could at a reasonable pace and I was pleased to be feeling so good at the 22 mile point, just after going under the M25 motorway, the orbital road many people think of as the boundary to ‘London’. Nevertheless, the checkpoint was a welcome boost.

Aid 2: 22 miles – Wraysbury – 1:21pm

Having only had a bowl of cereal before I set out, my body was telling me it was well past lunchtime when I reached the Wraysbury / Runnymede aid station, so I grabbed what I could after downing a couple of cokes and then started moving again before the forecast ‘crowds’ arrived. I was wearing my Leadville t-shirt from the start and had already had a few comments about it. As I was grabbing my food, I chatted with one of the crew at the aid station who had also done the 100 mile race through the Colorado Rockies.

Wraysbury
Wraysbury

I was out the door within a couple of minutes, but I took the opportunity to walk for a while, while I ate the food I had picked up. Eating on the hoof is not an art I have become particularly accomplished at, mainly because I find when eating with a dry mouth, especially sandwiches or wraps as much as I think I fancy them, all end up like dry lumps of plaster in my mouth.

I kept an eye on the few runners who had left in front of me, and I was eager to keep in touch with them, so started running as soon as I had attempted to finish my food.

I was on my way again at my steady pace, through Runnymede where 800 years ago this year (1215) the Magna Carta was signed. While we were on the theme of anniversaries, I progressed through Old Windsor where I had been born, 50 years ago! I looked up at the Copper Horseman (George III) at the top of the hill in Windsor Great Park as I rounded the river towards Windsor proper.

The river meanders away from the shortest route between Old Windsor and Windsor, taking in a detour through the village of Datchet, after which there was another brief journey through what appeared to be a nature reserve, before popping out to cross a grey stone bridge and then continuing round the curve of the river as it circles Windsor Castle. The Duchess of York had had her second child earlier that day, and the Queen was obviously in residence at Windsor as the flag was flying proudly atop the castle.

The one problem with a sunny Saturday afternoon along the Thames is the number of pubs you have to pass from which the smells of roasting chicken, barbecue steaks, stir-fry pork or lamb curry, in fact anything, is enough to drive a hungry runner to distraction. Passing through the town centre of Windsor, over the bridge to Eton at about 2:30pm, the feeling seemed all the more acute, so I put my head down and ran as fast as possible through the cacophony of olfactory intrusions.

After Eton, the route once again on the north bank, took on a much quieter turn, with most of the activity seeming to be taking place on the opposite side, with only a few walkers coming towards me who were also out on their own challenge. I carried on through the early afternoon sun which was more prevalent that I had been anticipating and soon made it to the Centurion flags waving in the wind in front of the gazebo for the next stop at Dorney, just before the Olympic rowing lake.

Aid 3: 30.5 miles – Dorney – 2:46pm

Just over 30 miles in 4¾ hours and I was feeling fine, but as ever needed to contain my enthusiasm. I refilled the bladder in my rucksack for the first time here, using some of the freebie ‘Zero’ tablets I had received in my Edinburgh goodie bag last year. I grabbed the usual melon and banana to keep me going and was off.

Windsor Castle
Windsor Castle

To my horror, I soon discovered a kit malfunction. I assumed I had incorrectly seated the seal from the lid on my bladder as the cold, wet, electrolyte rich concoction made its way down the back of my pack and the back of my legs. I stopped briefly to adjust it, but to no avail and so for the rest of the race, I had a sticky, but extraordinarily well hydrated back-side. Luckily, having anticipated rain, all my compulsory kit was wrapped up in a highly technical dustbin liner, so having a dry base layer if needed was not a concern and the temperature was also not excessive, so I decided to limit my water intake as much as I dared, planning to gorge myself at the aid points.

Having left behind Windsor, the next major town was Maidenhead with the village of Bray (of Vicar of Bray fame) in-between, just after passing underneath our third motorway for the day, the M4. The noise of the motorways is always incongruous when running along what appears to be a quiet country trail, but this illusion soon disappeared as I made my way into the outskirts of Maidenhead, crossing from the north/east bank to the south/west bank.

There were a lot of ‘crew’ stops along the easily accessible river stretch in Maindenhead and they provided a lot of morale support to all the competitors running past. Nevertheless, I thought I noticed a few runners stopping for impromptu pit-stops along the way but could not tell how many, if any, had pre-planned their crew meetings. Most runners seem a lot more organised than me – I just turn up and run!

I always think of Maidenhead as the the last town in the suburbs of London, at least as far as the Thames is concerned, and although I’m sure others will have their own views on this, on leaving the town the feeling becomes a lot more rural and the signs of habitation a lot less frequent. The path took a detour from the river just before Cookham to divert through the village along the high street, where the national trail acorn signs and Centurion tape then directed me through a churchyard and back to the river. The next checkpoint was a few hundred yards along, at one of the many rowing clubs which adorn the Thames like the teeth of a zip.

Aid 4: 38 miles – Cookham – 4:13pm

I did my now familiar grab and go with the melon and banana, this time snacking on a few fresh strawberries as well. Ordinarily I crave salty snacks on these long runs, but clearly today I was not sweating as much (maybe electrolyte down the back of the legs is the way forward 🙂 )

Thames Path at Cookham (Image Credit: Rod Allday)
Thames Path at Cookham (Image Credit: Rod Allday)

The temperature was also still quite comfortable having, I suspect, never really risen above mid teens, but the mid-afternoon sun was a lot hotter than I had been expecting. As I was still feeling relatively good though, I had allowed myself the indulgence of considering whether I could make it to Henley before nightfall. Last year I had reached Henley at dusk and after a fair stop, had progressed into the night, and needed my head torch almost immediately after leaving. As it is infinitely easier to progress in the light I had decided that my prime objective should be to reach Henley with plenty of time to spare.

I had travelled pretty much due north after the High Street in Cookham, and about a mile or so after the checkpoint, I crossed over a footbridge running in tandem with the railway line, back to the north bank. The aptly named Riverside Road (probably one of many I had navigated during the day) continued with houses on both sides, followed by a path through a quayside packed with enthusiastic young sailors, before finally petering out into the countryside and fields of Berkshire again.

From a northerly route, I had now rounded the bend in the river to a south-west course and was now heading almost directly into the sun. As I cracked on, I got the sense that I was ahead of my time from last year, although that was just intuition from my memory of the position of the sun in the sky which I realised was still surprisingly high.

Bridge over the River Thames
Bridge over the River Thames

The town of Marlow once again afforded a diversion through the town, but this time the challenge of navigation was even greater, with narrow alleys, another churchyard route and the bridge to keep me on my toes, although with a hand from some  race crew looking on expectantly for their companion, I was saved an expensive deviation. The pathway after the bridge again faded into the local countryside, and I was sorely tempted by the ice cream van at the end – if only the queue had been shorter and I had had change to hand.

There were probably half a dozen or so other runners around me and we had constantly traded places throughout the last few hours and continued to do so as even though I was only stopping for a couple of minutes at each checkpoint, they seemed to catch me and leave first, but I generally passed them again shortly afterwards, so I was happy with my time and pacing at this stage.

The remaining miles to Hurley passed quickly, and I was surprised by the appearance of the aid station under the trees, after the wonderful wooden arched bridge which I crossed. Although idyllic, the design is not the best for tired legs, being steep enough at either side to require wooden slats to gain grip.

Aid 5: 44 miles – Hurley – 5:15pm

The aid volunteers were once again encouraging, and I chatted with them for perhaps longer than I should, but I was on my way after a couple of cokes and grabbing banana. I was looking forward to Henley and the chance of some hot food, but I was reticent to fill the bladder in my rucksack, more than halfway as it would simply slop down my backside as I was running.

I settled once again into a rhythm, trying to keep my pace above a meagre 6 minutes per km which up to this point I had managed, but I could feel my pace steadily decreasing and my overall average (albeit with stops) was now inevitably slowing.

From Hurley, the route crossed through an island briefly before picking up flood plains, and then continued largely uninterrupted through fields and countryside, until compacted gravel announced the final couple of miles into Henley. There was a notable diversion through a deer park, and I was certain I spotted some llamas as well, and seeing the same beasts of burden as used in Leadville to haul supplies up the 1000m to the top of Hope Pass, but at precisely the same distance, I felt was ironic.

The deer park was a slight departure from the flat terrain of the previous 40-odd miles, rising up into the private land of the park to circumvent a couple of private estates before coming to a road leading past a very inviting pub and back down to the river. As I ran along, probably no more than 30-40ft above the level of the river, I spotted another runner, but coming toward me. I smiled once I realised it was one of the Centurion crew, and we exchanged pleasantries as we passed each other.

Temple Island, Henley
Temple Island, Henley

Having been travelling largely in a westerly direction since before Marlow, I was now on the final tight northerly bend round the river before heading south again, which would be my direction until Reading and having completed the bend I saw ‘Temple Island’ which I knew was only 2km from Henley. Spurred on with that knowledge, I continued to run all the way into the town and across Henley bridge, almost to the south end of the town where the next aid station was located, and the Sun still a couple of hours away from disappearing and no sign, as yet, of the promised rain.

Aid 6: 51 miles – Henley – 6:32pm

Halfway in a 100 mile race is invariably a major aid station, with drop bags and hot food on offer in addition to the significant morale boost one receives from having a good share of the race behind you (or where the race starts, depending on your point of view!). At this stage I was told I was 22 and I was over the moon about that, as the last update I’d had from my wonderful wife was that I was 32 much earlier in the day. As I settled down for some chilli and pasta, 2 or 3 other runners arrived and we chatted – my Leadville tee-shirt again proving to be the catalyst for conversation 🙂 – it was, however, time to change my top from my dry drop bag, and I filled the bladder in my rucksack again, trying to keep it below halfway to minimise sloshing.

I was off.

In the light.

Spurred on by my success at reaching Henley in daylight, I now resolved to see if I could reach Reading while it was still light – only another 7 miles further on and although I had probably spent 15 minutes at Henley, I anticipated there was still a good hour and a half of light left in the day. I was also keen to catch up with those that had seemingly gone straight through, although I think that only amounted to one or two at the most!

On the downside, I had forgotten the feeling of a cold, wet backside resulting from an overflowing bladder (in my rucksack, that is, rather than exercise induced incontinence), but sure enough no more than a few steps after leaving, I realised I had over estimated the capacity to the lid of the Camelback and it was again being squeezed and sloshed out down the back of my pack and my legs.

Having done this part of the run in the dark before, it was nice to see it in the daylight, especially since the last time I was going a lot more slowly by this stage. The Thames Meander I had run a similar route in the daylight, but in the opposite direction and seven years ago, but my memory although distant was also strangely familiar.

After Henley, the route covered a couple of wooden bridges spanning islands and across weirs upstream of Henley, before giving me a taste of things to come with tree roots and overgrown pathways, before then dipping through the estate roads of Lower Shiplake, crossing a railway line and then following a road to join back to the river with the long haul through the trails proper to Sonning and eventually Reading.

Reading Aid Station - Party time (Image Credit: Paul Ali)
Reading Aid Station – Party time (Image Credit: Paul Ali)

There were a couple of runners ahead and I passed them as they were walking. As is normal at this stage of events, I asked how they were doing and if they were alright. Both were fine so I proceeded.

The bridge at Sonning is only about a mile and a half from the outskirts of Reading where the checkpoint was located and I covered the ground in about 15 minutes, exceptionally pleased with my pace at this stage of the race and also the fact I had made the extra stop while it was still light.

A couple of the children helping out excitedly ran ahead with my number to report to their parents and helpfully (although not in my case!) asked if I needed any water or refill of my pack.

I was feeling surprisingly good and the staff remarked that I was looking quite fresh as I bounded up the stairs to the warmth of the riverside centre.

Aid 7: 58 miles – Reading – 8:03pm

The crew at the aid station, many of whom had run the race themselves in the past, had really gone to town with a party atmosphere set up through the centre. The best was the collection of ‘motivational’ posters they had plastered around the room where the food tables were laid out. I spend a good few minutes laughing at them while drinking sweet tea and forcing down some food.

Of course, all too soon it was time to leave, and I was on my way along the river once again.

Reading always seems to have a music festival going on, just after King’s Meadow where the aid station is located. A Saturday night in early May was no different, although it seemed rather subdued to me, and I took this as another sign I was here earlier than I had anticipated, and the festivities were yet to get going. As I progressed through to the town there were quite a few colourful characters enjoying the late evening on boats with barbecues galore by the bankside.

Caversham to Whitchurch
Caversham to Whitchurch

We had been warned of a couple of diversions in the briefing notes for the race. I can’t remember where the other one was, but I knew there was a diversion off the path due to work at the bridge in Reading. It was only a short digression, but I was glad once again to be still covering it in the daylight as it passed along the main arterial road around the town. The temptation of passing the mainline station, and being home in 20 minutes, was a fleeting thought. Luckily, on this occasion, I had prepared by reading the notes and getting my bearings beforehand and so the rerouting caused little difficulty.

From rejoining the riverbank, it must then have been less than a kilometer to Caversham Bridge, which seems to mark the western edge of the riverside development for Reading, even though the city itself seems to spread out for many more miles in that direction, but in more of a fan or V shaped profile deliniated by the railway on one side and the main road from Reading to Oxford on the other.

There were two or three runners who I was playing leapfrog with during this stretch, but I got the impression of steadily pulling away and catching others ahead, and as we entered the night our headtorches suddenly becoming necessary, we ran for a mile or so sandwiched between the river on our right and the railway line 20-30ft above to our left. We eventually reached the point where the route traversed the railway line by rising up a pedestrian bridge and I found there was a surprising number of runners and a marshal directing people up the right route. The reason for the number of runners was suddenly evident as I started to climb the awkwardly long, slightly sloping steps. Not the best for tired quads.

Although we were well and truly into the evening dark, and had needed head-torches for the last 10-15 minutes, we had now ascended to the main road which was well illuminated and even when dipping back into a housing estate on the outskirts of Purley, I left my torch off and saved the battery. I had passed the majority of the small group from the railway crossing by this stage but myself and another chap, went on through the estate, as we both knew the way back down to the river, where it popped out opposite Mapledurham (the village I always remember as famous for where ‘The Eagle Has Landed’ was filmed).

The route was now pure fields to the next checkpoint and while I remember it being positively damp underfoot last year as a result of recent rain, long grass and evening dew, this year my feet remained dry. I gave a little ‘thank you’ for small mercies, and ran on. This was about the time I started to become paranoid about the headlamps following me. Although there was nobody in my immediate vicinity, it is almost impossible to gauge distances without reference points in the dark – as I glanced back, was that a swarm of fireflies two inches from my nose, or a plethora of runners rounding the previous bend? Or was I just tired?

As I reached the outskirts of the village of Whitchurch, there were a lot of competitor crew members waiting and as is usual in these event they were all very encouraging to me and I was thankful for their help to point me in the right direction to the aid station, which was a few hundred metres further but off the main road. The way was marked with balloons, and a marshal was directing people up the right way to the hut. I was pleased with the pace I had run for the 9 miles, but had stopped looking at the actual time.

Aid 8: 67 miles – Whitchurch – 9:47pm

Now it was dark and the aid station crew were expecting a long night, I could sense that things were still waiting to ramp up as far as they were concerned and the two others and myself in at the same time was not very stressful for them. I had another sweet tea to keep warm and while waiting was asked if I knew where I was. I responded I didn’t have a clue and was shocked silly when they told me I was in 11th place. How could that have happened? Where had everyone gone? There were so many people ahead of me? I still had 30 miles to do, so could I keep this up? So many questions from such an innocuous answer.

Get used to this view!
Get used to this view!

Obviously, I was seriously motivated now to maintain this position and I left as quickly as I could, as ever, thanking the volunteers for their efforts and time.

The route doubled back on itself and I directed a couple of pairs of runners (probably by this stage with pacers) up the hill to the aid station, before turning back onto the main road and carried on my way with the short stretch to Streatley.

After no more than about 200 metres, the signs pointed left off the road and up a bridleway – as I noticed the turning, I also noticed another runner had missed it and shouted after him to follow me. The bridleway was about the only substantial hill of the journey but at this stage I was still feeling relatively good and so took a steady pace up remembering to focus on the top which was visible! The road was initially tarmac, with farms and a lot of equestrian oriented buildings located on both sides. Eventually the road petered out though and turned into a trail at about the top of the rise, disappearing sharply down a narrow and winding lane with trees and bushes encroaching either side. I realised from the sound of the flowing water that I had picked up the river again and was running parallel to it, albeit some way above, on quite a steep bank.

The undulating trail was actually quite pleasant, without the knarly tree routes I had come to hate, and I took the opportunity to look at the positives of using different leg muscles after so long pounding away on the flat. Nevertheless, I began to realise why this section was only a few miles!

After the forest, there were no head torches but I could swear I heard voices behind me, I popped back onto a level trail next to the river, underneath a large brick, victorian railway bridge, from where it was only about a mile to Goring, and the bridge crossing to Streatley where I found the checkpoint.

It was about this point I had my first ‘wobble’ of the day.

Aid 9: 71 miles – Streatley – 10:38pm

The staff at Streatley were as helpful and accommodating as any, but almost as soon as I stepped in to the station I began to feel nauseous. I took up the offer of warm sweet tea again, and tried to force down a few bits of food. The aid staff were unaware of my plight and I was certainly not of a mind to alert them as such, so after a few brief pleasantries and thanks, I was again out the door to their calm instructions for me to turn right as I left.

For some reason, I turned left as I left, and then turned right, out onto the main road, but luckily my tingling ultra-sense and the absence of any red and white tape markers, made me retrace my steps after less than 50m. I passed the aid station again and was glad to see reflective tape adorning the national trail acorns, curiously directing me through another churchyard – I’m not sure what the association is between the national trail and churchyards along the route, but clearly there is one.

The path continued along the west bank of the river from Streatley, in the same manner as before Whitchurch, with a fairly well trodden path in the fields to the side of the river, which I followed for about 3km. This had taken me about 30 minutes of nauseous tramping, and I had been passed by 2-3 people I had passed previously, and I was consequently getting more grumpy with myself for not being able to do anything about it. In the last hours of the evening after such a good day, I could feel the whole race slipping away from me – Up to this point I believed I could get in under 18 hours, but now reduced to 10 minute km’s, which is walking pace in anyone’s book, I began to send texts to Liz and I got the firm response that I should EAT, as much and anything I could 😥 unfortunately, I only had a couple of gels left and of course, just at that moment, a salty caramel gel was not what I could stomach but…. nothing else for it.

I veeery slowly forced down most of a gel and carried on.

I continued along the path through the short diversion away from the river at Moulsford, and little by little the feeling subsided and I was able to get back into a stride again. The path was gentle enough to allow me to progress and I also knew that in ultras you have to take the rough with the smooth, and after such a good day, my ‘rough’ time was long overdue. Still, I thought it unlikely that I would be able to get back up to the same sort of pace that I had throughout the earlier part of the day and I saw my average pace woefully slipping away.

The rain for the day had been forecast to arrive at about 10:00pm, but it had not really materialised, instead only a few spots of drizzle had been falling occasionally. I was glad of that as although I had my waterproofs, running at night, cold and damp, is no fun.

I had passed, consciously, through the ‘sub-marathon distance remaining’ milestone and was now aiming for 20 miles to go, but the checkpoint at Wallingford arrived first as I attempted to maintain my 10 min/mile pace.

Aid 10: 77.5 miles – Wallingford – 0:12am

The aid station at Wallingford was again located in a rowing club, but set up with tables in the entrance to the building with the normal fare laid out. Unbelievably, I had actually managed to maintain my position through my dark time from Streatley, but my fellow competitors were close behind and again were in and out before me 🙁 but after more melon and banana for the road, I was back out to the dark, thanking the staff.

Last year, there was a significant diversion around the Thames on the way out of Wallingford where I had got lost and wasted a lot of time. This year there were no such issues to consider and maintaining a northerly heading on the west bank was all that was required – I felt I had saved 30 minutes at least, just at this single point.

For a mile or so, the route continued through trees and fields, but with a well defined trail to follow, before crossing over the first of a few weirs which I was expecting before the end. The contrast between the still and silence of the English countryside in the early hours of the morning and the menacing dark while crossing a noisy weir could go a long way to inducing an acute sense of paranoia in most people, including me.

Suffice it to say I was glad to reach the perceived safety of the other side of the river where I picked up another road, which headed up to an apex with the main road from Reading which I had left some hours ago now. I darted through a field in Benson, which I recognised a being where I had stopped at a checkpoint on a previous race some years ago (The Thames Trot); on that occasion it had been early in the morning but I had still had tea! The route ran through the boats and quiet equipment of the marina at Benson, but then immediately regained the bankside as it sharply took a westerly course once again.

I was managing to maintain a pace averaging between 6:00-6:30 min/km (10-11 min/mile) which I was not proud of, but with 80 miles behind me I had to give myself a bit of latitude.

Last year I had walked most of the way from Wallingford to the finish with a fellow competitor, and while it was nice to have some company through the early hours of the morning, it did not help with my pace or my final time. This year I had been on my own for practically the whole race, chatting briefly as I passed individuals (or encouraging them as they passed me!)

I was, nevertheless, still spurred on by the lights behind me, but my occasional glances confirmed they were becoming further behind all the time. I swore at one point I saw another runner just ahead of me, but as I progressed there was no sign so I put this down to some arbitrary reflection of my own head-torch and my mind playing tricks on me.

As I digressed from the bank once again through Shillingford, I remembered a couple of places I should take care as it was easy to miss the turning. After joining the main road for no more that 500m I spotted the gate back to the riverbank. In my jubilation, I crossed the road and did not notice the step down through the swing gate to the open meadow I had to cross. I suddenly jolted down hard on my left foot and felt a searing pain from my middle toe as if the toenail had been suddenly ripped backwards.

I staggered on, briefly cursing my clumsiness and thoughts of failure and not making sub-18 hours came to the front of my mind, to the point I even wondered if I would make 19 hours and if my previous PB at the distance (19:15) was going to be a bridge too far. For a few moments I walked and waited for the pain to subside.

Slowly but surely both the pain and my irritation with myself subsided to the point I could start to run slowly again. As I did I found myself adjusting my gait to abate the pain. It seemed like forever before I stopped walking, and it also seemed like ages before I could ignore my toe and run properly again, but interestingly my Garmin record showed little to no variation in pace, suggesting either that it was only my perception that it was a long delay, or alternatively (and more likely) I was going so slowly by this stage that the delay had had little effect anyway! 🙄

I remember two things about this section of the race from last year. Firstly, my feet were absolutely soaked by the end of it due to the long grass and wet, cold conditions next to the river and I’m happy to report that I had no such problems this year, and secondly, there is NO WAY ON EARTH that the measured distance (7.5 miles) is correct. Perhaps there is some ‘Interstellar’ wormhole-in-reverse thing going on here, i.e. you travel half way round the galaxy just to get to the corner shop to get a pint of milk. Or so it seems. Anyway, suffice it to say that although my pace was much better this time, I still felt like I was travelling twice as far as I should.

As if that wasn’t enough, there was the paranoia of another weir to contend with as well, where I had to negotiate the clanging metal gates across the river with the thunderous water dropping beneath me. At least the crossing was recognisable and I had a feeling I was getting close to the checkpoint. In fact, it must have been 3-4km before I reached the bridge back across the river and was greeted by a marshal, of the standing-outside-waiting-for-runners-at-2am-hero variety, who directed me to the aid station which was a few hundred yards further on.

Aid 11: 85 miles Clifton Hampden – 1:53am

The village hall at Clifton Hamden was empty of competitors but the volunteers were ready for the onslaught of runners which I now accepted were largely behind me. They encouraged me by indicating I was looking ‘fresh’ and I was boosted by their comments even more than the fact I now had only 15 miles to do. I had managed the worst part (to my mind) of the journey and now I could slog it out with my heart, irrespective of whether my legs would work or not.

After a tea (which clearly had become my preferred drink for the day) I left the hall, thanking them and wishing them good luck for the rush which was imminent. As I retraced my steps back down the hill past the traffic lights which seemed redundant at that time of night (think midnight in Radiator Springs, in Pixar’s ‘Cars’ and you’ll have the right idea) and I noted a runner and pacer coming up the hill towards me – I greeted them and confirmed they were on the right route to the aid station and very close.

The next section, after the bridge, was again a departure from my previous memory as last year the sun had just come up before I reached this point but now I was covering it in the dark. My hope was that I would be able to cover the remaining distance before the sun came up, although I was not entirely sure when sunrise was. Either way I noted the advantage of having knowledge of a route in the light and how much easier it made navigation.

This part of the route was a bit of a narrow channel, due to the field having trees on the river bank and having been sown with rapeseed on the other side, the pungent yellow flowers luckily not quite yet at their strongest, although my memory from 2am is a little hazy on this. The route was again largely flat with the occasional undulation of no more than a few metres, but I knew I was on the last curve before the final northerly push from Abingdon (the next stop in 10km) to Oxford. Although I was aware of the curve, there was nothing in the grey sky to indicate I was slowly changing direction and again I relied on my memory of the route to gauge progress. That, and of course, the light pollution from Abingdon lighting up the sky like a beacon and moving slowly on my horizon until it was ahead of me.

There were a few road and rail bridges I went under during this section to break the monotony, and after the 3rd or 4th, I crossed a footbridge and the fields changed from farmland to flood plains, with the houses of Abingdon on the opposite side of the river and, according to my watch, I was only a mile or so from the next aid station in Abingdon.

I had given up looking at my pace by this stage. Provided I kept running forwards I felt that was as much as I could hope for, and I was still conscious that I had absolutely no time to spare if I was going to make my 19 hour deadline.

As I crossed the field, the trail turned into a track and the track turned into a path and after one final corner I could see the the Centurion flags illuminated by torchlight just before Abingdon bridge.

Aid 12: 91 miles – Abingdon – 3:12am

I didn’t think it would have been that long since the aid station volunteers had seen anyone running, but as I approached  they sprang iinto action. The kettles were boiled and ready, and the spread was, as ever, fit for a king. The told me I was the 10th runner through and I must have looked at them incredulously with the hugest smile on my face 😀 . Never in my wildest dreams did I expect to be in this position at this stage of the race. Despite my position, I still had my target to aim for though, so with only one more checkpoint before the end I made my way on, but with a distinct spring in my step.

The last 9 miles were split into a bumpy forest trail four and the final five which continued on the same theme until a gradual transition back to the tended compacted gravel and tarmac trails leading along the river past the many rowing clubs of Oxford.

At first the route continued on the fields before reaching another lock, and I continued straight on, but then immediately saw another runner coming towards me. Understandably, he was very grumpy 😡 . As he ran past he said he’d run on for 2 more miles before realising his mistake. I ran with him briefly, but he was fuming and so I let him go on ahead as we both crossed the lock and the weir to the other side of the river, for the last time.

We ran into a forest with a rough surface and for the first time in a number of miles I had to keep an eye on my foot placement and, of course, had my one and only ‘trip’ for the day.

As I rounded the next corner along the route through the darkness of the forest, my fuming friend was walking ahead having, presumably, calmed down. I asked him if he was ok and he muttered as I passed him. I felt incredibly guilty to be passing him  after his unplanned detour, but I needed to keep moving at pace if I was to beat my target 19 hours.

By this time all the scenery was looking pretty much the same and I was going over and over the pacing arithmetic in my head, attempting to distract myself from the monotony and the exhaustion which was ever looming on my horizon. Whatever you do, when you get to this stage of a race, don’t start to look for suitable ‘snooze-spots’ by the side of the trail, and trust me, I’ve done that before.

Suddenly, as I continued my mental calculations, I realised there was another couple up ahead, a runner and pacer and as they were walking I was gaining on them fast. They very kindly congratulated me, for still being able to run this far into the race, as I passed them and I acknowledged their support and asked how they were doing. Well enough, it seemed, but unable to run at present.

The weather had been fairly kind to us throughout the day. The rain promised for 10 o’clock had only materialised as an intermittent damp drizzle over the last few hours, but nothing I felt I needed get my waterproof out for. As I got closer to the final aid station, the heavens started to open. I had worked out I needed to maintain my current pace with 5 miles to go, to stand a chance of being in under 19 hours. It was going to go to the wire and I had no time to stop.

Aid 13: 95 miles – Lower Radley – 4:02am

The stop at Lower Radley is a farm building, but the volunteers staffing it were no less exuberant than any other location. The rain was coming down in buckets now, with curtains of water descending off the corrugated roof and I quickly put my coat on and grabbed a coke and banana with a couple of final melon slices for the day. The staff confirmed I was in 8th place, which I said I could not believe. They also offered me a chair by the heaters they had set up but I quickly declined, not wanting to to get any form of comfort which would risk settling me down for even a few minutes when I was so close to my final goal.

I left out into the dark and rain with the five miles to go. Now the rain was coming down hard, it was confirmation of my strategy to get as much done in the light and dry as possible, and I spared more than a moment of anguish for those behind me who were likely to be spending several hours in the damp conditions, with the ground getting less tractable and as a consequence, feet and toes suffering even more with blisters.

As I continued on what I thought would be a good 8km I was conscious of the fact that I could not stop for a moment and so quickly got into a rhythm running once more. However, the ground was mostly kind to me at this late stage of the race, and a final excursion through a section with long grass was the worst of it. By this stage, getting wet feet was the last of my concerns. While going through this section I caught up with another competitor (Brian Robb, #259) and I got to within about 20m of him, but who, having noticed I was gaining on him, sped up appreciably. I smiled as he pulled away from me. I was happy with my placing and my time objective, but he clearly thought I was pushing to overtake him 😉 . He also clearly had more speed in his legs than I did at this stage as within 10 minutes he had disappeared out of view.

For what seemed like forever, I continued at my slow, but steady pace in the rain, with my hood up now and yet the precipitation still dripping down my face. In fact, if anything the cooling effect of the rain might have made it easier to run, although at 4:30am after 100 miles, it was probably only marginal.

I had estimated, using my Garmin reading on leaving the last checkpoint, that I would be aiming for about 165km on my watch, so you can imagine my delight when I rounded the final corner in the river and saw the lights of the recreation ground where the Centurion finish line was located, clearly at less than this initial estimate by a good 500-1000m. Still, after 100 miles, every little helps.

I ran into the marked off area of the field, away from the river for the last time, and ran emotionally towards the inflated Centurion barrier to the applause from the crews, volunteers and staff who, even in the rain and dark at 5am, were excitedly waiting and congratulating those who had started out so many hours before in the suburbs of London, halfway across the country.

Finish: 100 miles – Oxford – 4:54am

Nici Griffin presented all the buckles.
Nici Griffin presented all the buckles.

My smile obviously belied my joy at finishing in the position which was confirmed for me as 8th, which to me was still unbelievable. More importantly for me though, was the fact I had smashed a 5 year PB, since only my second 100 miler in 2010, by a good 20 minutes. After a few more years behind me, I was pleased to have improved on this, and I was also first in the M50 age category, so clearly there are some advantages to getting old 🙂 . Liz, when I told her, was also incredulous at the effort I had put in to make up so many places throughout the race – It is a nice compliment to make your wife speechless 🙂

The volunteers at the end were angels.

They got my bags, provided me with chilli and a roll, and copious amounts of warm sweet tea, which this time I had the chance to enjoy without burning the inside of my mouth off in my haste to move on to the next section of trail.

After a shower and fresh clothes, I had the opportunity to inspect my feet. Not in awful condition and, to quote Monty Python “its only a flesh wound – I’ve had worse!”. I discovered the source of my toenail pain to have been a blister which had formed under the toe and the application of sharp forward pressure had merely ripped it off in one clean jolt. I suspected that would detach itself in the next couple of weeks or so.

The buckle. New style.
The buckle. New style.

Otherwise, everything was fine – relative to having completed 100 miles, of course. Stiff and solid legs, but walking still eminently possible, although I might be foregoing the stairs at work for a couple of days 😉

My thanks go out to the Centurion staff for putting on such a great event. Of all the ultras in the UK, theirs are definitely some of the best organised and executed and they should be proud of everything that they have helped the competitors in their events to achieve. This thanks also applies in massive amounts to the multitude of volunteers who assisted with this event, without whom it would have been impossible to start, let alone finish.

My friends I had met up with earlier in the day also had great performances during the race – Nick Greene (#1), who I met in Leadville 2013, came in second with a stunning performance, over 2 hours ahead of me! Also, my Guildford colleague Stefan Klincewicz (#238) got a 100 mile PB with a 22:47 finish.

4 thoughts on “Back on form?”

  1. Fantastic ML. Unbelievably proud of you and I know Dad is bursting too! You are amazing and your tenacity is something to be admired. Love your blog, love your humour and very pleased you did not give in to a ‘snooze-spot’ : ) .. only one snooze-spot allowed and that one is near Hungerford! : ) and love your new method of rehydrating! Ha ha..

    Really looking forward to all your other races ML, Edinburgh next week, South Downs, 13 June and then North in August. You are simply, the best.

    YAMWAILYMML X xxxx

    1. Thanks ML xxxx Thanks for all your support to get me to the start lines and grumpy winter early mornings. Sad that I’ll have no more comments from Dad, but know that both Mum and Dad are with me every time I venture out xxxx

  2. Congratulations!!! That is just excellent. I hope the rest of the year brings lots of similar successes!

    1. Thanks Liza – I hope Eliot’s Comrades adventure went well, with your pacing I’m sure he was in good hands. Hope you are on the mend for Leadville as well.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *