This was do or die.
After 5 months of races, it now all came down to this one final 100 miles.
I had inadvertently fallen into the Centurion Racing ‘grand slam’, a series of four races run by the same team which challenged not only my now favourite 100 mile trail running distance, but extended the challenge to running consecutive races carried out only a few weeks apart.
Trail running has exploded recently, with many, many people discovering the joy of running in the countryside, as opposed to battling with masses in city races, and this series of races catered well for the equally expanding appetite for ultrarunning, by taking in long distance runs along beautiful English national trails.
At the beginning of May, I found myself running 100 miles along the Thames, in the TP100 from Richmond to Oxford, followed 6 weeks later, by a similarly lengthy, but much hillier jaunt along the South Downs way, the SDW100 from Winchester to Eastbourne, in June. Typically, on the hottest day in August, 8 weeks later, I found myself running along the North Downs way in the NDW100, from Farnham to Wye in Kent. I had completed all these races in under 24 hours, setting a new personal best at the Thames Path 100 in May. I was quietly confident of a good race now, but I was also aware, through bitter experience that ANYTHING can, and often does, happen in a 100 mile race and nothing is a given.
So it was that I arrived in Goring, on 17 October, thankfully fully recovered from my previous exploits, having managed to exorcise the phantom niggles the mind throws at you before a race, and I was confidently toeing the start line of my 10th 100 mile race.
On a perfect running day (low temperatures, slightly overcast) the 10:00am start came quickly and around 199 other runners and myself funnelled north along the Thames on ‘leg 1’ towards the turnaround point 12.5 miles later.
The race director had warned us not to go out too fast, but as it was a fast flat section along the bank of the Thames, and many completely ignored him and I was passed by a huge number of people. I had to keep my nerve by running at my own pace, although by the time I had got back to Goring, I realised I to might also have gone out faster than I had planned, having done the first section in 3:30.
My family and ‘crew’ for the race were pleased to see me again back at Goring Village Hall, but at this early stage of the race I was feeling fresh and so only stopped for a couple of minutes, grabbing orange, melon and banana for the road, before leaving on to the second leg, initially north again, but on the east bank of the river, and then along a more challenging section up the Ridgeway.
I had studied the route profile in detail, and although I’d not had the opportunity to recce the route beforehand, I was familiar with the distances between checkpoints and expecting the large undulations through the forest sections on this leg. I was, however, already spending most of the time on my own as the field had spread out significantly since the starting gun. In my last two long races, I had experienced problems with my left hip (the old war wound) which had slowed me down around 35-40 miles, but this time everything hung together and my body performed as the mind requested. Even so, the turnaround point was a welcome sight at the top of the rise and I briefly chatted with the volunteers there, some of who I knew from other races – ultrarunning, despite its popularity, is still a small world.
Due to the ‘out and back’ nature of the race, you get to see front runners as you go into the turn around, and from that perspective it was a very social event. I ensured I congratulated and encouraged everyone with equal aplomb and I felt good as I ran down the hill and the sentiment was reciprocated. I was impressed by how strong the field was looking and even the ‘sweeper’, following behind the last position competitor, was well ahead of the planned cut-off times, indicating a fast race so far.
I pushed on down the hills, along the gullies, tracks and trails I had just ascended, and made it back to Goring for the second of four times at the 50 mile point in a shade over 7:30 hours. My family were again there to meet me and ran with me for the last 200m – cue proud Dad / children mode!
I had run hard over the last couple of sections to try to get as much completed in the daylight as possible. The next hill to climb was to the west and the sun had already dipped down into twilight behind it, and I estimated the dark would follow no more than 45 minutes later. As a result although I was halfway and 50 miles in, I only had a hot soup and changed my top for a dry one. After no more than 15 minutes I was out the door, with another handful of fruit to set me up for the 9 miles to the next checkpoint.
My pace slowed significantly even though the first section out of town, through the village of Streatley, was all road based. My expenditure of effort from the previous legs had obviously come to bear. I tried not to be too hard on myself though, as I had always anticipated the next section was going to be the toughest part of the race, with the steepest uphill, an unfamiliar course and in the dark. Despite my reduction in pace up what had become the true chalk trail of the Ridgeway to the west, I was passed by no more 4-5 people and strategically I knew I was saving my legs for the downward part of this monster. Just before I reached the midway checkpoint, I started to see the front runners coming back down the hill, and I estimated they were already 1.5-2 hours ahead of me. The midway checkpoint materialised soon after, signalling that the rise up the hill was largely over and I now had a mere 8 miles to return to this point and start my downward journey. I continued running and covered the distance to the turn around steadily, enjoying the quiet and dark of a late evening on the middle of a hill in Berkshire which was only punctuated by the lights of the occasional front runners coming my way.
After grabbing fruit and coke at the Chain Hill aid station, I turned around as quickly as possible and made my way on. I left at about the same time as another runner, Paul Beechey, and we chatted as we strolled along. Ultra runner conversations generally follow a similar fairly inane thread; How are you feeling? No, really, HOW are you feeling? Is this your first time? What other races have you done / thinking of doing? What sort of shoes / backpack / watch do you have? etc, etc. It is, however, amazing how much you can get to know about someone, whose face you cannot even see in the dark of the night, with these few basic questions! We passed many others on our way down the hill and continued our encouragement for them; to my mind these were the true heroes of the race as they were likely to be out on the course for at least another 14-15 hours. Paul was experiencing some pain and was following a run / walk strategy, so I stuck with him for a bit. Eventually, as we neared Goring again, he said he could not run any further though and was going to take it easy until he could get freeze spray from his pack, so I left him with a couple of miles to go to the end of the third leg.
I had taken a shade over 5 hours with the final ridgeway stretch, about what I had expected, and with the hills and unknown terrain now behind me, I relished the thought of pushing on with the last 25 miles as I knew the route well. I absentmindedly blinded the volunteer in the hall at Goring with my head torch as I entered and apologised as I asked for a warm, sweet tea. My dutiful wife, Liz, was waiting inside to ensure I had everything else I needed, but at nearly 11pm on Saturday evening, the children had sensibly retired.
After a 10 minute stop, I said goodbye to Liz for what would be the last time, thanked the volunteers for all their help and was on my way. 75 miles down in less than 13 hours. Could I maintain this pace? Was I going to pay for the earlier speed?
I passed another competitor who was walking back down to the river, then jogged out of the tended towpath into the fields and forests between Goring and Whitchurch. I saw the friend I had chatted to at the earlier aid station running back in the other direction. He was working as a volunteer at this race and was ensuring the markings on the course were up to scratch. I did not at first recognise him in the dark, seeing only his ‘Leadville’ t-shirt, from where we met running the Colorado trail 100 in 2013.
I made it the short 4 miles to Whitcurch through the forest trail up above the Thames as quickly as I could, and joked with the aid station staff that they should take an out and back, before and after, picture of everyone and entertain the social media sites with a ‘spot the difference’ competition!
I ran through the village and back down to the river for a flat few miles along the grassy flood plains of the river, where the gates and stiles were the only thing interrupting my now slow but steady rhythm. I knew that there was a final rise away from the river, through Purley on the outskirts of Reading, and I passed a couple of other runners on my way through this section before descending back down across a railway bridge to the river bank.
All good things come to an end, and with 5 miles to the turn around point, I hit a real low. My leg were seizing up, I was starting to feel cold, but in my ultra-frazzled state, I was not thinking properly about getting out an extra base layer. I tried forcing down a gel, but having been eating practically nothing savoury all day, the sickly sweet salted caramel gu really wasn’t what I wanted and I only managed half of it before the gag reflex kicked in. Suddenly I was reduced to walking full-time and any attempt to run was met with an inability to lift my legs after only a few strides. Not a brilliant situation with 17 miles still to go.
I plodded on as ‘fast’ as I could and watched as all the runners I had just passed, proceeded to catch me themselves and then pass and pull away into the distance 😥 . The lights of Reading, which had been illuminating the sky ahead for some time, were now becoming buildings, bridges and streets alongside the river Thames in the county town of Berkshire. Although I knew the route through the town well, I had forgotten how far the aid station was the other side of the conurbation, and several expletives tumbled out as I expressed my frustration at my inability to progress. Luckily, my only audience at 1:30 in the morning were a few geese, swans and ducks, who seemed distinctly unconcerned with my plight.
Eventually my nearly expired form made it up the cruel metal steps of the aid station, to the warm sanctuary inside. That was when my problems really started.
I requested another sweet tea from the volunteers and sat forlornly trying to summon up the courage to have something to eat, feeling this was all I needed to get me through the final 12.5 miles. I had clearly got too cold during my walking stint though, and was starting to shiver. After what seemed like an eternity, I pulled my coat on and greeted my fellow runner, Paul, who had just entered after catching up with me. He was also struggling to muster any sense of motive force, so we decided to make our way off together – misery loves company! I grabbed a couple of mini sausages and boiled potatoes, but they remained in my backpack pocket, somewhat worse for wear, until the next day!
We made our way steadily down the steps back down to ground level, with quads painfully straining, and started our way back to Goring for the last time. We chatted as we power shuffled back along the towpath through Reading town. I had already mentioned to Paul I was a ‘grand-slammer’ and that I was trying to stay an hour or so ahead of the chap in third place, Ken Fancett, in order to gain another position in the overall standings. So, imagine my surprise when, about 45 minutes out on our early morning stroll from the turn-around point, I reconised my nemesis from his number approaching in the dark, and more to the point, he was still running. We both acknowledged him as he passed and my distance addled brain went into overdrive calculating how far out we were and how much he was potentially closing on me if I continued to walk 😯
Our conversation from here went something like this.
“Do you remember that guy I told you I had to stay an hour ahead of?”, says I.
“Yes.”, says Paul.
“That was him.”
“You’d better start running.” said Paul, after his mind had clearly come to the same arithmetic conclusion as mine.
“Hmm! Yes.” I quickly agreed, trying not to sound to panicked
I wished him well and said I’d see him at the end and, with that, mustered all my strength to get my legs moving again. It never fails to amaze me what can motivate the mind to overcome a complaining body.
My speed from here was good, although not what you might describe as sparkling; probably somewhere between a slow jog and a fast shuffle, but faster than walking, and that was my aim. Having started running again, I now found I warmed up considerably with my coat still on, but I felt close enough to the finish to slog it out rather than stop and waste time taking it off.
I was soon up across the railway line, through the houses at Purley, and back down to the river opposite Mapledurham, with a flat couple of miles to the final aid station. I covered it steadily, all the while working out if I had done enough to stay ahead of my rival. At the same time, I dared to contemplate whether another personal best time might be possible; with my struggles over the last couple of hours, I had almost relinquished that dream. As I arrived at Whitchurch, with only 4 miles remaining, I was in and out with no drama, and one final hill through the forests above the riverbank to negotiate, before the ‘sprint’ to the finish.
For some reason, the forest section although winding and undulating, with tree roots and loose gravel ready to catch weary runners, seemed eminently runnable at this stage and I progressed well to the final flat miles. I had passed a couple of others in the last 30 minutes or so with my new found motivation to finish, and passed another couple on this last section, now speeding along the home straight faster than I had done for several hours, with only the gates along the route punctuating my progress.
The worn grass trail turned back into a tended gravel track and I spotted my landmark tree, which I had noticed on the way out, jutting into the river and briefly diverting the route, and I then knew there was less that 1/2 mile to go. Suddenly I sensed the bell for the final lap, the final furlong on the home straight, and I continued sprinting as I saw the bridge at Goring and the rise to the village hall. The lights of the crew loomed into view and I acknowledged their applause as if I was on a victory lap after winning an olympic final, and only after entering the hall did I stop, exhausted.
I had finished in 18:46:09 – a new personal best, by only 8 minutes admittedly, but a PB is a PB!
I again blinded the same volunteer in the hall at Goring with my head torch as she offered me another warm, sweet tea and we joked about her needing sunglasses for this race. 🙂
My smile at having achieved everything I had aimed for during the year dominated the customary post-race photos, and this time I got an extra ‘buckle’ for completing the series of 4×100 mile races in one year, the size of which surprised even me.
Liz was waiting for me, and we chatted away, while I ate a welcome bowl of chilli con carne and pasta, my first hot food for 24 hours at least. We had a nervous few moments, waiting to see if my rival in the grand slam rankings would come in less than an hour before me, but in the end I needn’t have worried as he was over two hours behind and the icing on the cake of my Ultramarathon year was third place in the grand slam. I was pleased to see Paul, who arrived just under 30 minutes after me, having also found the strength to get his legs moving again, and we congratulated each other on good performances.
My wife was a star, as usual, helping me back with all my (now extremely odorous) paraphernalia to the hotel for a few hours kip, before the children awoke and life started to return to some form of normality.
Not before a well deserved, big breakfast though.
My thanks go to Liz and my children for all their support at this and throughout the year – I could not have achieved what I have without you all at my side.
Many thanks also to the Centurion crew for organising such a brilliant series of races and of course to all the volunteers for all of you efforts at all the 100 mile races throughout 2015 – your smiles, encouragement and assistance during some dark times have pulled me through and I will be joining you on the other side of the table next year.