Tag Archives: Centurion

A Good Way To Finish

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.

A100 Start line 3
A100 Start line 3 (Photo: Stuart March)

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.

Continue reading A Good Way To Finish

Keeping the Dream Alive

I knew this race was going to be the toughest of the year but I could not believe it when James Elson, the Centurion race director, mentioned it was going to be sunny and hot all day, without the promised rain later – I knew right then, this was going to be a battle with many casualties.

I relied upon my 8 previous 100 mile finishes to keep my nerves under control, and remembered my 2 DNF 100 miles, hoping today was not going to be the day my completion ratio went in the wrong direction.

Even so, by the time I got to 20 miles I wondered if I had bitten off more than I could chew, and by 30 miles I was ready to throw in the towel, hang up my ultra-boots and thinking of taking up a less physically demanding lifestyle.

Luckily, though, nothing came to mind.

So I plodded on, sent the now common text of self-pitying whinging to Liz asking her to meet me at halfway where we would then take stock and review life.

Still. I am getting rather ahead of myself.

The North Downs Way 100 was the third of my 100 mile races during 2015 from the four which constitute the ‘Grand Slam 2015 100s’. The races in the series are

  • Thames Path 100
  • South Downs Way 100 (still pending write up….)
  • North Downs Way 100 (this race)
  • Autumn 100 (mid-October)

The NDW goes through Guildford on its way to Kent and is literally on our doorstep, with the first 20 miles being one of my regular running routes from its start at Farnham through to Ranmore Common. However, I have not done the 100 mile race before and was looking forward to it. I had hoped to get to recce the latter part of the course, but moving house had also put paid to that plan. Interestingly, the full NDW National Trail continues for another 20 odd miles all the way from Wye to Dover, where it then loops back to Canterbury before picking up the trail again just before Wye. Luckily, we were about cut the full route short by a merciful 50 miles.

My preparations prior to the event were not quite so fortuitous.

Having finally moved house a scant fortnight before, after eight fraught months of uncertainty, planning applications and legal wrangles with solicitors on all sides, (and let me tell you, ultramarathons are simple compared to the process of moving your abode) it was a miracle that I was able to find any of my gear, chargers, gels, hats, buffs, tops, base layers and general paraphenalia, the packing of which I have now got down to a fine art in my 12L OMM backpack. Nevertheless, my original thoughts of registering on Friday evening were quickly out the window and a 4:15am Saturday morning alarm was set.

One woefully short night’s sleep later, Liz and I were on the road to Farnham, along a misty Hog’s Back which at that time in the morning thankfully provided no impediment to our short journey from Guildford.

Waiting to start
Waiting to start

Liz dropped me off outside the school and we said a brief goodbye. I think she has learned that a combination of nerves and concentration drives me into an even quieter state of mind than normal – if that is at all possible 😉

Although only 10 minutes to the briefing, I had plenty of time to register, get my kit checked and sign waivers, etc, as the queues had already disappeared. I was fastening my race number on, as James began to give his speech.

After that it was a short walk from the school to the narrow trail entrance which was nominally the start of the North Downs – at least for today.

Start: Farnham – 10:00am, Saturday 8th August

The efficiency of the Centurion staff and crew is, I think, becoming legendary, and everything started smoothly within seconds of arriving at the ‘trail-head’.

The route after the first half mile or so had, ironically, been diverted away from the trail, due to maintenance work and the organisers suggested this would add no more than 0.5 mile to the total distance (and not to complain at the end when your Garmin was over-reading). Strangely, even though I had never covered the bridleway we were going along, I knew exactly where it came out and took as much advantage as I could of the wide track and road, knowing we would we hit a short but steep uphill road after popping back onto the official track, before darting back into the narrow confines of the forest borne route once again.

Misty Morning
Misty Morning

354 had applied to run the race but only 218 had finally toed the line at the start, so this was an average race by Centurion standards, and I was not held up more that a minute or so on the initial narrow part of the course heading down through The Sands, where the dominant enterprise seems to be the golf course, then skirting past the village of Seale before heading up towards Puttenham. The trail was a mixture of rooted pine trees, open fields, some agricultural with maize growing, and also the occasional up and down exposed chalk gully, some more treacherous than others. This was to be the model terrain for the day.

It was on one of these gullies that I passed a group of runners and heard my fellow Guildford grand-slammer, Stefan Klincewicz. We had a quick chat about moving house and pacing, and then I wished him luck for the rest of the race and carried on.

It is quite strange covering a part of a course that normally takes up what would be a good and complete long run for a Sunday morning, knowing that it amounted to the merest proportion of my journey today. I nevertheless enjoyed the run through the quiet village and the views of the misty sunrise which gave little hint of the scorching temperatures to come later in the day.

I was expecting the first checkpoint to be in the car park for the Puttenham golf course, and was marginally disappointed when I could’t see it, but they had set up no more than 200m later in a clearing at the top of a rise where I saw the first of the chirpy volunteers.

Aid 1: Puttenham – 7.1 miles, 1:08:41

I took the briefest of stops at the first aid station for a quick coke, which was more for the caffeine than the liquid, as I was already starting to fall asleep from a restless night and early start; not a good place to be with the best part of 24 hours exertion ahead of me.

I settled back into enjoying the strange feeling of running the route with which I was so familiar, thinking how much our dog, Adastra, would enjoy at least part of this run, although alas, no dogs allowed.

The route from Puttenham to Compton is along gravel trail where access to the golf course either side and houses, is required, but this soon descends through a brief forest trail before crossing underneath the A3 at Compton. After this there are several miles of undulating sandy trails, which I have used for MdS training in the past as it allows a good introduction to the strength sapping properties of sand. Strangely enough, today it didn’t seem to bother me too much, possibly because the recent rain and high humidity had firmed up the surface marginally.

As we came down into Guildford, I was pleased I was slowly catching and passing a couple of other runners, but I was also preoccupied with thoughts of running through a route so close to our house, across the river where the children play, and across the playing fields where the dogs have run about so much. As I came along the fields to the Chantries, there were plenty of supporters in the car parks and I kept an eye out for Liz and the children, just in case, but thought it would probably be too early for them.

Puttenham. Image - Stuart March Photography
Puttenham. Image – Stuart March Photography

I made my way through the residential Pilgrims Way and it seemed longer that at any time I had run it in the past, and I was glad to get back to the trail where it skirts round the Chantries hill. At this point we were back to sandy gullies and as if that wasn’t enough to contend with, there was a horse and rider up ahead of me. As I passed the rider, I said good morning and asked how she was doing. She complained there were a load of people coming up behind and her horse was nervous. I passed when she allowed, giving the horse as wide a berth as I could. I ran ahead of her, but she then directed the horse to trot, looking back and complaining there were more people coming! Luckily we were out in a clearing in the forest, but the uphill sandy trail limited my speed somewhat otherwise I would have removed myself from that situation in a flash!

Eventually, after a few moments of to-ing and fro-ing, I gained an advantage just before the trail narrowed and ducked back into the trees.

I knew the next hilly section, St Martha’s, one of the oldest Churches on the Pilgrim’s way, was likely to be testing and although not long, I decided to walk up it to conserve energy. There was a supporter at the top motivating the runners with a pom-pom dance encouraging us to make it to the top – I saw her another couple of times later on the trail.

On this occasion, I hardly noticed the church at the top, having taken many pictures here in the past at what is a surprisingly picturesque site. Still, I pressed on down the sandy trail on the eastern side knowing there was one final climb to Newlands Corner, before several miles of relative flat along the spine of the North Downs towards Reigate.

There is a small winding, narrow trail going up the hill which runs parallel with the road for no more than 200m, but on this occasion, I obviously hit the rush hour as the ramblers coming in the other direction thoughtfully moved aside for me as I trudged my way round.

A couple of us crossed the minor road at the end of the parallel section, and made our way through the long branches to halfway up the hill. Now out in the open, we traversed and rose up in the open until we made it all the way to the top, although we took the high road (below the treeline, but not the undulating direct route across) before the final steep ascent along the chalk and grass combo up to the car park at Newlands Corner.

Aid 2: Newlands Corner – 14.7 miles, 2:21:52

I was briefly confused after reaching the car park that there was no checkpoint. However, being on autopilot, I had run up too far and the gazebos were located slightly further on, towards the road crossing. I stopped for slightly longer here as the heat on the exposed route over the last few miles had increased considerably as the mist had burned off. Even so, I was off relatively quickly looking forward to a steady and largely sheltered section towards Dorking.

The competitors had already spread out considerably and even after only 15 miles, there were probably only 5-10 people stopped at the checkpoints and consequently less so in evidence out on the actual course. I enjoyed the settling into a rhythm in the peace an quiet of a sunny Saturday morning 🙂

The 3km section from Newlands is largely flat, followed by another 12km along the spine through Ranmore common, before dropping down to the A24 crossing and the Box Hill stepping stones. So, although quite a long section, this was supposedly relatively easy. The heat was beginning to pick up though, and on many of the exposed slopes we were running into a bright climbing sun which slowed me considerably.

Denbies Wine Estate from Ranmore Common (Photo: Stephen and Lucy Dawson)
Denbies Wine Estate from Ranmore Common (Photo: Stephen and Lucy Dawson)

The route of the North Downs seems to stick predominantly to the south facing side of the rise and this section was no different. A forest section gave way to a run along sloping fields with crops growing before darting briefly through an expensive residential area with wide tended verges and a middle England village feel about it.

There were many cyclists about as the time drifted on which was to be another common occurrence, at least during Saturday morning, especially as this was a brief part of the route where the Ride London cycle had taken place the previous Sunday; some cyclists were reliving their experience perhaps.

Before descending to the A24, I came across a curiously surprising sight – a vineyard on the slopes of the hill through which I was running. Acres and acres of straight parallel white grape vines, in lines down the slope were the last thing I expected, but this was ‘Denbies’ Wine Estate which turned out to be the biggest vineyard in the UK – right on our doorstep! Who knew!

As the trail circumnavigated the vineyard, it eventually took a sharp downward turn and I soon found myself at the busy A24, where we had been warned earlier to use the subway crossing. The crossing was quite a way and the back and forth route amounted to nearly another 1/2 mile, and I slowed as I drank and used another of my gels as I strolled along the road, in preparation for the anticipated climb up to Box Hill. I was glad after the hot stretch to reach the checkpoint.

Aid 3: Box Hill Stepping Stones – 24.6 miles, 4:06:22

Each aid station was manned by cheery volunteers, who were always busy and helpful with the food, runners, water and checking people in, and they helped me fill my backpack quickly. I had anticipated that I would be using a lot more liquid than on the previous two races, but I was still surprised my water bladder already needed filling at only a quarter distance. Having figured out the malfunction in the lid seal from my previous race, it was a lot easier to fill and I was more confident of not having a completely soaked backside by the end of the race.

Stepping Stone over the River Mole
Stepping Stones over the River Mole

So early in the race, I was still relatively fresh, but starting to feel the effects of the heat, and also anticipating the climb back up to the top of the ridge at Box Hill, so I took on a lot of fruit and coke.  The water melon and tangerine segments, followed by banana for the road, have become my staple fair on these races. I was on my way swiftly though, thanking the volunteers for all their help.

Just before the rise, the ‘stepping stones’ provide a novel, way to cross the River Mole which flows parallel to the road, along the valley, both presumably taking advantage of the natural geography of the region, and I allowed myself the luxury of stopping to take a couple of pictures. All too soon though, I had picked my way across (surprisingly gingerly I might add!) and was on the other side on my way up the hill.

Some years ago, I had done a race along the South West Coast path called the Classic Cliffs, other than starting at midnight and running in the dark with a sheer drop and almost certain death to your left for the first part of the 57 miles, the other thing I remember about it was the steps. Frequent excursions up and down steep wooden steps following the coastal contours, probably 150-200ft at a time, between the creases in the shoreline.

That memory had a reprise today as I turned a corner in the trees and emerged into a clearing and found myself staring up at a series of wooden steps, and if there had been any clouds, the top would’ve been hidden in them – almost 🙂

Steps Up Box Hill
Steps Up Box Hill

The thing with these steps is that then tend to be quite high and require quite a lot of quad, glute and hamstring effort. By the time I was at the top, I was using my hands to push down on my knees for extra support. I hoped there would not be too many more hills of that sort throughout the rest of my journey, although that thought would come to haunt me again before the end.

As I was approaching the limit of the route that I knew, I tried to settle back down into a rhythm and although the route was slightly undulating, it also had a lot of twists and turns through forests, often negotiating fallen trees and my favourite gnarly tree roots to keep an eye out for. I managed this section without any falls, trips or stumbles. The last time I had done this part of the run was winter about 18 months ago, as part of the Pilgrim’s Challenge, and the route was extraordinarily muddy and slippery. Today it was considerably easier.

This was the stretch of the route where the trail approached closer to the London orbital M25 and indeed the drone of the cars on the motorway became ever more noticeable over the next couple of hours.

I chatted to a few people as we ran at similar paces, sometimes slowing for a rest and sometimes getting a second wind and moving ahead of them as they had with me.

The trail evened out a few miles before we reached the Reigate Hill checkpoint, which was positioned just after the crest of a hill overlooking (presumably) Reigate, and I saw many other runners, walkers and bikers coming up the hill to enjoy the views across south Surrey and Sussex, which I had just taken in myself.

Aid 4: Reigate Hill – 32.3 miles, 6:03:03

Lunchtime.

I don’t remember if it was here, but the usual smell of summer barbecues, roasting meat, curries and in general burning animal flesh wafted through the air on many occasions through the day, and this was a picnic area in an English beauty spot at Saturday lunchtime on a sunny, summer’s day, so chances are it was here, tormenting me.

After a few slugs of coke, I grabbed some slices of melon, orange, apple and banana and, after ‘stuffing my face’, left the checkpoint doing my best impression of a hamster, with little more than the banana for the road.

There was still quite a bit of downhill before reaching the bottom of the next valley, or at least diverting uphill again. After a short while I found myself walking (yes, walking) through the outskirts of a village before tracing a path through a school complex (Royal Alexandra and Albert School, Gatton). I kept a lookout for the signs indicating I was on the right track and my levels of confidence that I had missed a turning on my own, were at rock bottom before I eventually spotted some red and white tape fluttering in the breeze.

Golden Cornfields
Golden Cornfields

Even though there was a lot of downhill, I was finding it difficult to run without pain. The same pain I had experienced in my previous race (SDW100) which was way too close to the pain I had felt in my hip 5 years ago in Leadville before it broke.

I was in a quandary.

Again after 30 miles into a race, the discomfort from running was increasing.

My head told me I should stop and that it would be far more sensible to live to race another day, although multiple DNF records are a difficult blemish to expunge from a runners consciousness. I had followed my head in Mont Blanc last year and, it turned out, I had bailed for no good reason.

My heart told me to carry on until it became unbearable as my challenge for the year was to complete all four races, and failure at any point would diminish the accomplishment of all of the other races – past and future. That is, unfortunately, the strategy I had taken at Leadville 2010,  and we all know where that road ended.

My surgeon had told me previously that there was “no way” this hip would ever give me any problems again and “if anything, it would be the other side” that would start to exhibit the same symptoms. So I had that small level of confidence that at least the same stress was unlikely to occur again. My issues was now knowing whether something further, simpler or different might occur.

My wife, Liz, as supportive as ever, was incredibly disappointed for me, as I spoke to her on my journey. Interestingly, either my phone, or her phone, was playing up around this point and one of us had unwittingly dialled the other, and since I had been taking pictures or something anyway, it was several minutes into our conversation before we realised the fortuitous accident.

I explained a now familiar story of frustration from the aching in my left side hip and she listened as I whinged and moaned a bit about not enjoying the challenge; why do I do this; it must be time to give up and act my age(??), as I had already cogitated the matter for quite a few miles.

I had probably 16-17 miles to cover to the halfway point and I decided it best to press on to halfway, where we would, in a repeat of the previous race, see how I felt. The prospect of walking 3-4 hours in the midday heat was not appealing.

Hanging Wood...
Hanging Wood…

By the time I had traversed a golf course and reached the outskirts of Merstham, my route diverted from anything I was now familiar with and nipped across the M25 which was now to remain less than a mile to our south until just after the halfway point. I spoke to an Irish lady whose partner was crewing her and had arranged to meet her at many of the checkpoints. The traffic on the M25 clockwise (heading west at this point) was backed up and slow moving for several miles, and she was concerned he was not going to be able to get to her in time. She ran off as we approached the bridge across the M25, saying something about trying to spot his car 😉 So, of course my mind then whiled away the hours trying work out the improbability of her spotting him in a traffic queue on Britain’s busiest motorway in the 10-15 seconds it took to cross the bridge.

After the crossing, we did a sharp ascent to the top of the rise again and followed a track called (not for the first time) Pilgrim’s Lane. The track went through a farmyard and surrounding miscellaneous building and outhouses, before disappearing once more into a wooded area, but it was fairly level most of the way and I reached the next checkpoint on Gravelly Hill sooner than I had expected..

Aid 5: Caterham – 38 miles, 7:47:38

The aid station was located at the east end of a clearing in the forest and the staff had done their best to utilise as much shelter from the trees as possible. The inexorable motion of the Sun was taking its toll though and the flimsy gazebos were little protection against the heat now convecting up the side of the south facing slope.

Caterham Viewpoint along Gravelly Hill
Caterham Viewpoint along Gravelly Hill

I still had what felt like a long slog of 12 miles to go to the halfway point and I didn’t relish the thought of much of the same type of terrain as I had experienced for the last few hours, especially in this heat. The terrain also caused another problem – gravel in my shoes. I had not fitted any ‘gaiters’ to my shoes, to stop trail detritus finding its way to my feet, so I don’t suppose I should have expected any less. It did mean occasionally after a rough trail, I needed to ’empty’ the sticks and stones, which I did at this checkpoint in the comfort of a chair. It was bliss to sit down, if only for a moment. The biggest problem, however, is always getting up again afterwards 😡

My water was still okay, even though I had been drinking constantly, so I ate a few pieces of iced melon and drank some coke, both of which were most welcome in the heat and, after thanking the volunteers, I was on my way once again and although it seemed like I had spent a good while at this aid station, in reality it was only about 5 or 6 minutes.

The trail from Gravelly Hill veered away from the road down through the ominously named Hanging Wood, which was still and close inside and lived up to its eerie name. I was quickly through and emerged at another bridge across a busy road (A22) before picking up another road called Quarry Road which made me smile as we had moved into our new house in Quarry Street, about two weeks before.

For a couple of miles I travelled past more expensive houses, tucked away in the woods, which meandered up and down, left and right, the road snaking an uncertain path through the trees, before eventually turning to the right back along a trail. After another couple of miles, the route diverted south again and I noticed the exposed white chalk excavations, which presumably gave Quarry Road its name.

English Harvest
English harvest, from a trail on the edge

I considered that the main difference between this and my previous race through another national park, along the South Downs Way, in June. This course was far less consistent, that is, it was far more variable and had far more enclosed forest sections with twisting and turning, undulations in the tracks. The terrain was largely similar, with a variety of loose gravel, compacted earth and roads through small villages to negotiate, but this route had a lot more of the aforementioned ‘steps’ and much of the trail also ran through untended field edges, giving a distinct impression the path was an afterthought at the sudden demise of crops, where spring sowing tractors had been unable to extend their reach.

Less than a mile after one of these fields where the hay was being harvested and the stalks baled into giant cylinders throughout, the trail turned again to an uphill forest section, where I again saw the enthusiastic lady with her pom-poms shouting and encouraging the runners on their way up the hill! One of the other runners asked if she was going to be on every hill for the next 60 miles 🙂 She smiled politely and declined an answer.

At the top, the final checkpoint before halfway was a welcome reprieve.

Aid 6: Botley Hill – 43 miles, 9:07:23

The volunteers at Botley hill had a lot more shelter from the mid-afternoon heat and it was noticeably cooler here to stop, than at the previous checkpoint. Even so, I spent only a scant three minutes filling my face with the usual offerings. The iced water melon REALLY was good.

The route continued through woods, fields and edges of fields before picking up another road through a residential area.

There were quite a few cars parked along this road and many crew / supporters were waiting for their runners to come through. There was one very enthusiastic Aussie lady with a cow-bell encouraging the competitors and I smiled at her and her group as I passed. I saw them many more times throughout the day.

Solitary Journey. Image - Stuart March Photography
Solitary Journey. Image – Stuart March Photography

As I made my way along, a policeman in his car slowed and drove alongside me. Although I didn’t think I had done anything wrong, my adrenaline levels rose ever so slightly, and I wondered if the local neighbourhood watch had reported me for emptying the grit from my shoes onto the kerbside. I was relieved when he asked me what the race was about, and when I explained, he laughed and stated he could probably just about manage 100 miles, in his car, provided he was given the opportunity to stop for lunch 🙂

Throughout races of such a huge length of time (rather than necessarily distance) one does tend to have many ups and downs. These often bear no correlation to the difficulty of the trail, how fatigued the runner is or how hungry. I had a low point myself earlier on, which correlated with the ache in my hip which was progressively getting worse as I continued, but after continual testing, I now found I was able to run more steadily along the gentle trails and so progressed as fast as I could towards the mid-way checkpoint.

Running to the Family. Image: Liz Pomeroy
Running to the Family. Image: Liz Pomeroy

I stopped at a right turning in the trail in order to unload the small but highly irritating stones which were gravitating towards the soles of my feet, but continued quickly on my way as trail turned to lane and lane changed back to trail before I eventually hit the promisingly named ‘Main Road’ with signposts to Knockholt village and from there it was what seemed a very long half mile to the checkpoint.

Aid 7: Knockholt Pound – 50 miles, 10:31:12

It is always such a boost to see my family at the checkpoints, especially for the first time in a race. They were all waiting dutifully for me to come in, and helped me with the usual quick hits of fruit and coke, before I sat down and had some proper food – pasta and chilli.

Crew Savannah. Image: Liz Pomeroy
Crew Savannah. Image: Liz Pomeroy

The village hall at Knockholt Pound was like a sauna with all the sweaty bodies and heat from the weather, so I sat outside in a hallway, but this was almost as steamy. Liz took my top, which I had changed for a fresh one, and damped it in cold water, and hanging this round my shoulders while I ate my pasta was ‘exhilarating’, to say the least! Savannah was a star fetching me additional cokes and fruit while I changed my socks and contemplated my next steps.

Halfway into a race is a huge psychological milestone, but I was unsure if my recent bought of speed was a swan song or a new lease of life. Either way, it was a tough decision to put my shoes back on, stand up and walk back out the door.

I said goodbye to the others, who had migrated outside to look after the dogs, and walking back round through the checkpoint ‘entrance’ had to explain I had already been checked in, so as not to confuse the volunteers ticking runners off.

The route through the village continued briefly, before dipping back south to the NDW trail, which we had been diverted away from a mile or so before the checkpoint, and from there it continued in a similar fashion to previously, through field and woods. Suddenly, after running down through a couple of clear trails at the edge of open fields, I was surprised to find myself running parallel right next to the M25 Motorway (which was no longer suffering its earlier congestion) and after the calm of village life, that was a bit of an assault on my senses. Luckily, after no more than 500m the route headed south-east and over the motorway which continued on its north-easterly circuit of the capital.

A couple of other runners and myself now took a tortuous route on the local roads and trails through another village, on another road known as West and East Pilgrims Way, which were spliced onto either side of the High Street at Otford. It was about here that I heard Liz and the children in the car as they made their way past me. They were unable to stop though, as I later found out, the car was running on fumes and they were off to get fuel.

The route settled down after crossing the railway line at the east end of Otford, and the town abruptly died out in favour of a steep uphill forest trail, but on a positive point is was was as straight as an arrow for a good kilometre.

The joy of a little consistency was unfortunately short lived and we were soon back to running across and around fields of corn, through woods and down the odd lane.

Having left the M25 to its orbital journey, the source of road noise was replaced by the M26 which we were now running parallel with although admittedly it was at least a mile down the slope of the downs, which we were continuing to traverse, along, up and down.

As I emerged from a wooded area I saw a village off in the distance and hoped that this was Wrotham, where my sister and her husband had run a restaurant in the past. The route picked up the Pilgrims Way on the way into the village (I think there was a nomenclaturistic theme emerging here) and as I turned a final curve towards playing fields, I saw the Centurion flags in the early evening light and then spotted my children running towards me.

Aid 8: Wrotham – 60 miles, 13:22:16

It was great to see my family again and a huge boost with around 40 miles to go.  It had taken me some time to reach this checkpoint and the proverbial wheels were starting to fall of some of their wagons, through hunger and tiredness, but I was glad they had a park with swings in which to play as they waited, so at least boredom was not added into the mix. My pace was slow though; much slower than I had hoped to this stage and even a sub-24 hour 100 was in jeopardy, and I knew I would have to move it to get in under that particular wire.

The children again helped with cokes and fruit for me (and I helped to get them some chocolate chip cookies). We discussed the next stop which, for crew accessibility, was at Bluebell hill and as it was already nearly 7:30pm, I did not expect to see them again in the dark of the evening.

I ran off after saying goodbye to everyone, and they ran after me again (unofficial pacers!) so after one final hug, I disappeared down a trail which led to a bridge across the M20 motorway!

More cornfields....!
More cornfields….!

Thankfully the route now settled down on its way up the hill towards Vigo Village, the rise being only a couple of hundred feet and then a nice forest plateau for a while, followed by a similar open section at the edge of a field after descending couple of hundred feet again. There were two or three runners both ahead of and behind me, although as we were now into the pacer permissible stage of the race, it was difficult to tell whether they were two individual runners chatting, or a runner and pacer – I generally assumed they were the latter, as the telltale signs were there; one was generally smiling and chatty, running ahead to open gates, straining to hold back like Usain Bolt at a parent’s sports day, while the other was moving more like Mr Bean, having rode across America on a horse with no saddle, trying to force down an inch of squashed banana without vomiting and caked in dried, salty sweat accumulated over the last 14 hours.

After a small rise it was only a quarter of a mile to the aid station at the top of Holly Hill.

Aid 9: Holly Hill – 65.6 miles, 14:31:14

I only stopped for a few minutes, having only come about 5 miles since a long stop at Merstham. The Sun was pretty much down by the time I reached Holly Hill, and even though it was still light, I got my torch out to hold ready for the impending onset of the night after the twilight as I left the aid station. I also put my Garmin on charge in my backpack – it normally lasts for about 18-20 hours, but had already beeped at me to indicate low charge, and since I was not expecting to take 34 hours, I thought it best to charge it now to get me to the end.

Probably not the best idea, for a couple of reasons.

For some obscure reason, I had it in my mind, even after looking at the aid station list and checking, that the next checkpoint was 72 odd miles, that is, only 5-6 miles from leaving Holly hill. That wouldn’t have been a major problem, but also for some reason it no longer beeps laps when it is on charge (I have it set to indicate every kilometre).

So, imagine the scene. Suddenly, it was getting dark, I had no idea how far I had gone, and no idea why, after 6 miles, the aid station was not materialising. Not a good situation to be in – especially when you think you are close and you tell you wife, I’ll probably be another 30 minutes and an hour later you’re still not at the checkpoint 😯

Nevertheless, the route was actually quite pleasant as the sun was going down, both before and after the checkpoint, and I enjoyed the play of light in the trees and the changing colour of the sky. There was a long section through a forest with a well tended trail for around 3-4 km immediately after the checkpoint where I eventually had to succumb to the use of my head torch, although for quite some while I switched it off when going through clearings where the remaining daylight was sufficient to see the trail. Eventually though, even this was not possible.

I spoke to a chap, Ilsuk Han #25, who was running and walking at a similar pace to me. We talked about other races, running and how he was doing. He seemed stronger and more comfortable than me at that stage, but I largely kept up with him, as we both ‘tagged’ on to a group of others running with a pacer.

Twilight Sunflowers - Image: Richard Goulder (Centurion Running Community)
Twilight Sunflowers – Image: Richard Goulder (Centurion Running Community)

This was a really nice part of the race, where I’d settled into a rhythm as the terrain was now marginally more consistent, I was having a second wind and thankfully the heat from the day had disappeared. It was also about this time that we went through a field of sunflowers which made the most amazing sight, but the light was not really good enough (by the time I got there!) to take a picture, so thanks to those others who provided a few on Facebook!

For almost an hour the route had been undulating, but slowly descending, and as the little group of us, made our way along, sometimes dispersing, sometimes travelling together, we eventually hit the highly urban area on the outskirts of Chatham. As we picked through the roads, underpasses and bridges, I retrieved my now charged watch from my pack, so at least I now had an idea of how far I had come. Unfortunately, my expectation about where the next checkpoint was located, was still incorrect and I constantly thought it was imminent.

Having crossed over the M2 motorway, which I considered a major bridge, we turned south and made our way across the longer and more impressive viaduct across the Medway river, along the pavement by the side of the motorway, by the end of which we had added at least another mile to our journey. The motorway over the river was well lit, so I turned off my head torch to save batteries, and the smooth man-made surface afforded the opportunity to get into a nice ‘pace’ (relatively speaking) and so I caught a few others during this section. Once on the other side of the viaduct, we crossed under the motorway again – I grumpily noted there was not a pathway on the western side of the bridge, hence the need to cross over and back again, probably adding an unnecessary 200m to our journey 😉

For another 1/2 mile we ran parallel with the main road, with me checking around every corner for signs of the next checkpoint. My hopes were continually dashed and eventually we turned away from the noise of the road and started a long haul uphill, covering an ascent of 500ft in a couple of miles. I passed quite a few people as I hiked uphill, continually hoping that each light I saw in the distance was an indication of an imminent aid station. My estimated text to Liz of 30 minutes to the next checkpoint had been followed by apologies of confusion as to what was happening with my Garmin and my mind! I also passed a guy who was rather worse off and I chatted to him as I passed, but he was adamant he didn’t need anything and was just plodding slowing along in order to pull out at the next checkpoint. As I turned round every so often to check on him, the line of head torches up the hill confirmed for me that everyone was checking he was okay.

After a couple of miles, the rise diminished a little and going was a little easier. The trail was dusty though, and I was more than a little surprised when a couple of cars came up from behind. I assumed they were crew vehicles heading for the aid station, but thought otherwise when the second driver showed extreme irritation with the fact that another runner and myself did not get out of the way instantly, speeding up as soon as he had the opportunity and kicking up clouds of dust into our head torches, which stuck to my salty skin and made it difficult to breath for several minutes afterwards. Thanks very much!

Bluebell Hill Sunset (before I arrived!) Image: Liz Pomeroy
Bluebell Hill Sunset (before I arrived!) Image: Liz Pomeroy

Eventually, 45 minutes after leaving the road and starting up the hill, I saw lights and people congregating, giving me a good indication that the checkpoint was just ahead. The 6 miles I was expecting had turned into a long tortuous 11 miles and had been one of the toughest mental sections of the day. On the upside, as I ran down the side of the grass verge to the Centurion flags illuminated in the dark, I had 4-5 miles less to go than I had expected and, significantly, I suddenly realised this was under one marathon distance, but more importantly, my family were still waiting for me.

Aid 10: Bluebell Hill – 76.2 miles, 17:00:12

After my miscalculation error, I had not expected them to still be here as it was 11:00pm. Bless them – they had been spotting satellites and shooting stars in the crystal clear sky and playing with the dogs, but they were very tired. I stayed here for over 25 minutes, longer than I should have and went through an ‘I-don’t-feel-like-going-back-out’ moment as I emptied my shoes, drank hot tea and put on my base layer, although regretted than once I was underway again as it was still relatively warm. The children were stars again, getting me everything I needed 🙂

After the struggle of standing up, I made my way off, with a nice long downhill section easing my legs back into some semblance of function after being stationary for so long. The downhill consisted of a narrow channel, reminiscent of the final downhill into Eastbourne on the SDW100 (where there was only 3km to go, I dreamt!), and I had to watch my foot placement in the uneven and rutted surface.

At the bottom of the hill there was a crossing via a subway under the road, before ascending back up 300-400ft to the ridge through a forest in about a quarter mile. That seemed quite hard, but was over quite quickly and was followed by a level trail all the way to the descent into Detling. For the last few miles I had started to notice a hotspot under my left foot again, and despite pulling and pushing my sock about (which had been the cause of problems in the previous race) I hoped the blister which was forming would not cause too many problems towards the end of the race.

There was another brief downhill into the village, and then a well marked route up and over a pedestrian bridge which I surprised myself by bounding up and down quite quickly. The checkpoint was immediately after the bridge and there were several crew and support staff pointing the way for weary competitors.

Aid 11: Detling – 82 miles, 18:45:47

As a result of the ease of the last section, I was feeling good as ran up the steps into the hall where the food and aid was laid out and I got more than a few quizzical looks from those already in the hall.

At this time of night, my need for coke is normally replaced by a desire for a hot drink, and sweet tea invariably hits the spot – tonight was no different. The aid station staff were incredible – so helpful and supportive, even at nearly 1:00am, they were bright and cheery and a real boost.

The lady I spoke to said there were only about three hills left before the end. I guess I shouldn’t have taken that quite as literally as she obviously intended it, as over the next 3 miles I counted about seven.

I left full of confidence and started my way up the first hill. The route was the same as it had been earlier in the day; initially through trees, but then backwards and forwards across undulating fields.

“Ooooh, this must be what she meant about the hills”, I thought to myself as I stealthily negotiated my way down the hill only a few moments after ascending the last. I increased my count.

One.

The trail was dark, and the sky was clear and I enjoyed the open sections where I could spot the constellations ahead of me – Hercules was prominent at the time.

Two.

As I zigzagged up and down the hills I could also see another couple of torches both in front of and behind me.

Three – great, that must be it.

Then there was a flight of steep wooden steps, both down and up. I had flashbacks to Box Hill earlier in the day, and to the Classic Cliffs again.

Four – Huh? Maybe that last one didn’t count as a hill…

More steps.

Five – Oh man, what is going on here?

Six – whose idea was this?

Seven – had enough now.

By the top of the seventh hill, there were one or two of us together, which, after 85 or so miles is actually quite remarkable, and we travelled on chatting together for about 30 minutes before hitting the downhill into the next village.

As we hit Hollingbourne, my companion stopped as he was meeting his girlfriend, but distracted by the departure, I then made a fatal error and missed the signs for the trail.

I travelled downhill along the village ‘main road’ which was all but deserted at 2:30am, for about 1/4 mile before I intuitively felt I had taken a wrong turn. The lack of indications, either permanent or race placed, also helped me to make the u-turn decision. As I arrived back at the junction where I suspected I had gone wrong, a crew / supporter confirmed I should take the ‘other’ route.

Annoyingly, I had wasted over 5 minutes with my detour, and although the route was now very slowly ascending along a paved road, I ran on to try to regain some time.

Moon in Taurus
Moon in Taurus

The moon was rising to the east, slightly to the left of my current heading, and it made a spectacular view with the crescent moon perfectly framing Aldebaran in Taurus, with the Pleiades watching pensively overhead. Oh for a camera, tripod and a couple of hours to spare at that moment 🙂

I think I was running with another one or two people at this stage and there were another group of runners up ahead, probably two competitors and a pacer, I thought, as they were doing a run walk strategy and the pacer was counting out their mile pace to ensure they had a chance of getting in under the 24 hour mark for the ‘special’ buckle.

I ran with them for a bit but did not like the sound of their conversation. They lacked confidence that they would be able to make the cut-off, and I suddenly started to doubt I had calculated correctly. I think the pacer was trying to gain a slight amount of contingency for his colleagues, but in reality it was having more of a negative effect on me.

As a result, I stepped up a gear and pushed to get into a bit more of a rhythm. The surface was relatively flat (i.e. ±100ft undulations), but again variable and through a largely forested area, required a fair amount of concentration to avoid mishap on the uneven ground. Undulating was actually good at this stage and I pushed up to the top of the short rises and enjoyed the respite of the downhills. At one point I was pacing for the whole group of half a dozen or so of us, and I felt strong as the kilometres ticked off slowly.

It was about 5km from Hollingbourne to the next aid station but the going was easy so I covered it steadily and hit the small station at Lenham at about 3:15am.

Aid 12: Lenham – 90.9 miles, 21:15:43

My feet were starting to suffer by this point and I was glad that there was only just over 10 miles to go, with a bit extra added on for detours and diversions (my reckoning was no more than an additional mile or so).

As I stopped I remembered to switch off my head torch, rather than blind the volunteers – at that time in the morning, I’m sure they are just as tired as the runners, but they all keep up a happy demeanour and support the competitors through the last few miles. I did the usual with a quick warm tea and fruit to keep me going. I forced down a dry scotch egg to try to get some protein onboard, along with some crisps for salt, although at this stage I was starting to think about the end and so wasn’t expecting to need much more food. I was out of this aid station within no more than 5 minutes, and as I left, the pacing group I had been with earlier pulled in.

I always estimate about 2 hours to do 10 miles on a good day,  and as I left the checkpoint I was making mental calculations about how long I had to go, both in distance and time.

I ran along a road briefly to pick up the trail lower down the hill following another few runners which I tried to catch, and later on also crossed over another road which was empty, even though the first light of dawn was now starting to obliterate the stars in the sky.

As I carried on and suddenly found myself all alone for the first time in ages.

The route went past a few houses, and what appeared to be another quarry, but eventually started to take a constant slow downhill stance. It was a fairly wide trail through an arch of trees at this stage, with a nicely stable surface and the additional light from the slowly rising Sun helped with my foot placement allowing me to keep up the steady pace I had calculated. I was trying to achieve 7 minute kilometres – laughable, really, but significantly faster than the 10 minute kms I had been reduced to earlier in the day, and if I could cut 2-3 minutes off my average pace over the remaining distance, I would be ‘safe’ for the sub-24 buckle.

As I closed on where I hoped the checkpoint would be, I noted I had not seen any trail markers for some time in my solitary run through the downhill forest section and wondered if I had missed a turning. If I had, I would not have time to retrace my steps and get in in time, so carried on what I thought was the route and luckily eventually saw some crew and supporters encouraging me, and confirming the checkpoint was just ahead; I suppose it is not that strange the thoughts that go through your mind at 4am after running for nearly 24 hours straight.

Aid 13: Dunn Street – 98.4 miles, 22:52:02

I hardly stayed at this aid station for any time at all. There were only 4.5 miles to go, and I didn’t feel I needed anything to get me through that, so I grabbed a couple of bits for the road and guiltily made my way out. I guess the aid station staff are used to people getting out as fast as they can when so close to the finish, but they were just as encouraging and supportive as all the other checkpoints and I thanked them all the same.

Once I got underway, and was clear of the woods, I realised everything was getting much brighter, even though the sun was not quite risen yet, and the sky was light enough that I no longer needed my head torch, so I packed it away as I continued.

The route was largely downhill, albeit slowly, and with the time I had made up on the last couple of sections, I was now confident I could get in sub-24, but obviously wanted to do the fastest time that I could so carried on at the (relatively slow) pace I had managed to maintain before.

We ran across a couple more fields, and I enjoyed the red dawn skies illuminated by the imminent sunrise, before coming across an avenue of tended trees along a light tarmac road, before hitting the trail again with about 3km left to go.

There were a few runners around me, and one guy sped past me as if he had just started out doing a 5k! I was keen not let that happen again, so I upped my pace as much as I could in anticipation of turning the final corner.

We ran through another field, along a road through a village green, and then dipping around the back of some farm sized greenhouses, with the number of supporters walking towards and away from the finish increasing all the time, the dew in the long grass suddenly making my feet soaked, but I wasn’t worried at this stage, and carried on regardless.

As I departed the trail and headed for the railway crossing, I remembered something James mentioned at the start about using the bridge and so I went up and over the pedestrian bridge even though the railway level crossing was open and empty. I even had to find my way out through a ticket office to arrive 5 yards across the road from where I’d been two minutes earlier :laugh: I’ll put that down to a mist of 100 mile exhaustion and 24 hour sleep deprivation! On the upside, the station was ‘Wye’ and as I followed the tape markings, I knew I was close to the finish.

Shortly after I saw a Centurion crew member beckoning me towards the final turn. “Go right round to the back” he said, and I realised why as I passed several doors and rooms of competitors already inside who had completed their race, before I saw the finish line.

I smiled as I saw Liz on the other side of the finish, and I stopped only after crossing under the now familiar Centurion inflatable.

Finish: Wye – 103 miles, 23:40:13

I had done it.

Finish line euphoria
Finish line euphoria

After another scare earlier in the race, I had managed to pull another sub-24 out of the bag. The conditions had been atrocious for the competitors, as eventually only 137 of the 218 starters, roughly 63%, had finished the race, many succumbing to the hot conditions.

I relished the presentation of my buckle and thanked the staff for all their support. I also thanked Stuart, the photographer, who had been up since the early hours of the previous day, who had followed the runners across several locations, and who had also been cheerful and supportive throughout the day. My finish bag was with me almost immediately  and shortly afterwards I was in the hall with Liz, a sweet cup of tea and a hot bacon sandwich, and let me tell you, life doesn’t get any better than that! 😀

I chatted with Martin Walker #100, who came in just before me along with Ilsuk Han who I had run with earlier. Martin sat next to me on the chairs laid out and is also doing the Grand Slam, but was of the opinion he’d not be doing anything like this again after this year.

Having stopped, my feet were starting to swell and my body was starting to stiffen up. It took some time to be able to muster the concentration to bend down and pop my feet out of my trainers, without losing a layer of skin from the soles of my feet at the same time. The simple act of changing shorts, top and socks eventually took me about an hour, and I anticipated walking like John Wayne for the next few days.

Grand Slam finish still a reality
Grand Slam finish still a reality

I’d like to thank my wife for all her support throughout the race and bringing the children to the finish to see me. I would not have got as far as I did without all her love and kindness, advice and ignoring my whinging.

I’d also, again, like to thank the Centurion organisers and volunteers who were tireless in their support of the competitor’s dreams of a 100 mile finish. Congratulations to all those who achieved a first 100-mile finish on a tough course, and to all those still in the Grand Slam 2015 – see you in October!

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.

Woefully Underprepared!

This was going to be a race with a difference.

I knew I had not done enough preparation for it, but thought I’d give it a go anyway, with the proviso that I would bail if things got “too tough”

TP100_SmallWaaa-haaaa-haaaa-haaaa! 😆

Define tough, for a 100 mile ultramarathon?

Before I launch into the tough guy clichés and superlatives which abound around some of these events (e.g. “Make friends with pain and you’ll never be alone” or Rule 1 – “No whining” and, of course, the near apocryphal Marathon des Sables inclusion of a “corpse repatriation fee“) let me just say this event was NOT one of those. Indeed, the organisers pitched it as giving

… runners new to the 100 mile distance, the opportunity of completing 100 miles on foot where significant elevation changes and difficult navigation are removed as major obstacles.

No problems, methinks! Just a long training run 😉

Continue reading Woefully Underprepared!

Back Into The Swing Of Things

Okay. My bad.

I’ve been so distracted over the last 7 months with the modules of the course I’ve been studying in Astronomy and Cosmology, that I’ve barely had time to do anything else. My days have been a succession of waking up, studying in the confined space of a commuter train to London, working, running at lunchtime, more working, studying and reading on the way home, helping with the children until bedtime, then dinner and more studying.

Having handed my last Astronomy module paper in on Monday, I’m now free for a few months though – until October as I’ve signed up for another couple of courses…. 😉

I must thank Liz for all her support over the last 7 months, as I could not have managed it without her provision of food, water, beer and sustenance in general at appropriate times. Thanks ML 😀

Continue reading Back Into The Swing Of Things

Sometimes It Works….

Bless the guys at Centurion Running. They must’ve really been having a bad morning!

I had been looking around for a ‘local’ 100 miler to participate in around the middle of next year and I’d found a relatively new race along the South Downs. The race goes from near Winchester a few miles inland along the south coast of the UK, but at its closest point to Guildford is probably less than 20 miles south.

South Downs

It sounded good to me, but registration was not open until 10:00am this morning, 25th Sept.

So I logged on expectantly just before the preset time and started pressing my browser refresh regularly waiting for the predicted registration link to appear. Just after 10:00am, I and presumably the hundreds of other enthusiastic and excited ultra-runners who were trying to get a place on the race, were presented with a blank screen and a rather slow ‘progress’ bar. All my attempts to get in to find the page were thwarted and I was continually presented with a number of general server timeout error codes.

A quick look at Centurion Running on twitter and they announced server problems and a server reset had not solved the huge traffic induced problem, and a further announcement would be made at 1:00pm.

So I went for a run 🙂

In addition to work and helping with children, I seem to be spending a lot of time blogging and along with Liz working on stuff around the house as we are doing a lot of work at the moment – or rather having a lot done; painting, curtains, cabinets, etc. The trouble is, there doesn’t seem to be much time left to spend on training or planning training, so I have to take the opportunity when it arises!

Belt Buckle

Just a short one lunchtime to loosen the legs up, and it was nice to be outside. The City air is getting noticeably cooler and it was quite windy today as well, so my temperature was just right when I got back to the office (normally I spend 30 minutes cooling down!)

While checking my emails and eating my lunch, I checked out the website again and they are going to try the whole registration thing again next Tuesday, so if you fancy 100 miles along the South Downs mid-June, you know where to go at 10:00am, 2nd Oct!