Since I decided to get back into the world of ultra again just over 12 months ago, there at the back of my mind was the burning desire to run my first 100. More specifically 100 in 24 hrs. It’s a bit of a magic number for ultra runners and one I wanted for myself.
I thought until entering the 100 (within 2 minutes of the entry opening as they sell out really quickly) that my 50 miler in the Brecon Beacons would be my ‘how the hell am I going to do this’ challenge for 2016. I truly didn’t know if I could finish the 100 when I entered it, let alone within 24 hrs which was more of a long term career goal rather than a 2016 one (initially at least).
However, once I have a goal and I figure out how in my busy life (work, 3 hr commute, 2 young kids and a wife who works full-time) I will be able to train for it, I become pretty single minded that I will do it. I have never DNF’d a race and part of my enjoying the challenge of ultra’s is to find my personal limit of physical and mental capability is.
Following my 2nd place at SW50 in June I had 2 weeks of recovery and slowing built the miles back up again. I managed to stay somewhere between 65 – 90 miles a week, usually 75/80 from July to late September. I was becoming quicker over shorter runs as my usual training run was only 4.5 miles (although it was 3 times a day), but I was worried that I had only run over 20 miles twice since June and the longest of those was only 26 miles.
I tapered for 3 weeks but within 2 days of starting the taper I picked up a cold (always happens to me) and felt really rough until just 7 days out from the race. I was a little worried that 15 miles a week for 3 weeks was too much of a taper against the planned 50:30:10) but deep down I know I don’t do tapers very well and still run too much – who doesn’t?
I was running with a friend, Leighton, doing only his 2nd ultra (first being SW50 in June) and I got a decent nights sleep at his on the Friday night after the numerous unpacking/repacking of my kit until bed time. An early start and decent breakfast was followed by a drive across Bristol to the infamous Andy Persson’s house who was kindly giving us a lift to Goring (and back). If anyone isn’t familiar with Andy’s exploits look him up on FB under the name ‘Andyontherun’. Andy also runs the Tri Shop on Bristol Harbourside and is always happy to offer advice and insights.
The journey down was thankfully very uneventful as was kit check. The board outside the village hall however did make me laugh and it was definitely worth a photo. They made it sound so easy.
Time to unpack and repack the bag again, reposition my Tailwind powder in my bag, top up my bottles and get ready head over to the race briefing. I had hoped to meet up with a running friend from previous races James Bennett and true to form he turned up with the whole family 30 mins before the race briefing. We had planned to run together for leg 1 at least but James had other plans when it came to it and managed a sub 21hr finish in the end, looking great every time I saw him.
Centurion race briefings are renowned for several reasons. There are always a decent number of 100 mile virgins along with a similar sized number of Centurion Grand Slammers – Autumn 100 being the last of the 4 Centurion 100’s each year and I think in excess of 20 people in the running for a GS buckle that day.
We got the weather report from James Elson (RD) and we later realised he clearly had a second job or at least contacts at the Met Office as his comments were within minutes of being bang on.
Almost bang on 10am we were off. My watch decided to play silly buggers and froze. I had a little panic until the realisation hit me that that 200m of unrecorded data wasn’t really much to worry about consider the distance left to run. A really short and gentle jog from most people down the first gate was quickly followed by a bottleneck, quite amusing really.
The first leg is the flattest following the Thames Path for 12.5 miles until the turnaround point. I chatted with James for an hour or so and realised that I was already not sticking to my very defined strategy of 24 minute run and 6 minute walk. I let James go and for the next 30 minute block or two I kept catching him on my run section but only enough for a minute of conversation before I started to walk again. James waited for me at the turnaround point but again my run / walk approach soon saw him off into the distance and I would only ever see him again going in the opposite direction to me.
Despite eventually adopting my run/walk approach I still was too stupid to follow it properly and ended up doing 28/2 instead. However this really caught up with me at around mile 23 where I was feeling rough and I decided to walk in the remaining distance along the Thames, taking the opportunity to grab a few pictures as it was a gorgeous day with beautiful surroundings. I lost about 20 places in that 30 mins but I was definitely the right call. You can tell from this picture of me at Goring I had over cooked it a bit.
Goring at 25 miles. 4:03 and 92nd place.
A short catch up with James again and a few mouthfuls of his amazing homemade soup, followed by a quick check on my Tailwind powders and a plateful of a very strange mix of food, from Jelly Babies, Jam Sandwiches, cherry tomatoes and Porkpie – and I was off. I realised in the following days that I had clearly spent longer in the Village Hall each time than I had intended, not necessarily that much before leg 2 but more and more as the event went on.
I was looking forward to leg 2 the most. Its on the Ridgeway which I ran in full in 2010 on XNRG’s Druid Challenge and is much more undulating than the Thames Path which gave more opportunities for natural walking breaks rather than rely on my ill-disciple as on Leg 1. I was feeling great on this leg and after grabbing the first of my many coffees at the turn around point at Swyncombe Farm before the big climb back up the hill before the decent into Grims ditch – which everyone says they hate but to be honest its brilliant. Tree routes, proper woodland trail and the ever present danger of hammering your quads from having too much fun as I did on Druids Challenge and very nearly did again here. It reminded me how much I loved the Ridgeway and I am definitely going to go back in the next 2 years to do the whole 86 miles in 1 day (TRA event) rather than the 3 days it takes on Druids.
It was towards the end of this leg that James Elson’s first prediction of rain came true and at the last aid station before returning to Goring I grabbed the usual strange mix of foods, along with a S-Cap and Gu. Ive never had Gu’s before until now, but I have to say they are great, although not the Peanut Butter one! I also got the aid station crew to get my headtorch out of my bag as whilst it wasn’t quite needed yet, it would before I got back to Goring. It was a short 4.5 miles return to the Village hall which passed smoothly and I was back in for more food, change of socks and put my Hoka’s on (turned out to be bad decision) and the now customary 25 mile photo and FB update.
Goring at 50 miles. 9:17 and 90th place.
It was well and truly dark now around 7:30pm and again we were out on the Ridgeway but in the opposite direction ultimately towards Chain Hill before turning around and heading back to Goring again. The first section of this is road and a not insignificant steady gradient. It must have been the Porkpie but also the amazing feeling of new socks and now vey bouncy shoes. I ran most of the way back to the trail and made up a number of places. The undulation is nothing serious on the Ridgeway at any point really but after 11 hours and 55 miles enough to make most people, especially me, walk most of the inclines. It was at this point I got chatting to Michael Wiggins and we stayed together all the way back to Goring at 75 miles.
It was a full moon, heading towards the middle of nowhere and approaching the middle of the night. I have run at night before, but never through the night. I was worried about this before the race not knowing if I was going to be tired, exhausted, cold etc. but actually it was amazing. You find your own little bubble in the world and get a lovely sense of freedom and isolation knowing that almost everyone else is not experiencing anything close to what you are and how lucky you are to be doing so.
This picture, whilst not from the Ridgeway (Thames Path towards Reading) and not taken by me (credit to ……….) shows you how amazing it was that night.
My feet started to hurt now. The blisters on my feet had gone into overdrive since putting my Hoka’s on. They don’t really fit me properly, ½ size too small, but I’ve never had any trouble with them over distances up to a marathon and I thought the cushioning would be perfect for the hard section of chalky Ridgeway. I only got them as I wasn’t sure if I would get on with them and so was reluctant to spend £60-80 on a paid and have to sell them straight away, so when a friend let me have an old paid for a tenner, I jumped at it despite being a bit small. Getting on well with them I should really have got a another pair that fitted!
Between Michael’s knee and my blisters we pretty much walked constantly for 15 or so miles of this leg, maybe a bit more. We picked up Michaels friend and pacer at Chain Hill aid station and turn around point.
Chain Hill has to be the best example of an aid station in any event, anywhere. It was a full on rave. Fluorescent lights, Drum and Bass music and little white capsules being dished out! Apparently the Police attended at one point thinking there was some kind of illegal rave going on. They then found out that the little white capsules were basically salt and also realised that they had run out of tea bags and so went back to the police station and came back with more supplies!
It was cold up there though and I was glad to get moving again, albeit walking. We managed the odd jog for a minute here and there but towards the end of leg 3 I was being left behind even at walking pace. This was a real bad patch for me mainly driven by the pain coming out of both feet with every step. I definitely needed to change shoes back again and Goring just couldn’t come soon enough. I also knew I had a secret weapon waiting for me. John Adams – a totally top bloke and someone I met on Druids Challenge in 2010 – had come all the way from London in the middle of the night to help me through the last and clearly hardest leg of the race. I called John whilst up on the Ridgeway and I also knew he had Compeed!!!!
Goring – 75 miles. 15:51 and 85th place. Given we walked so much of leg 3 not quite sure how that happened!
John was brilliant. I was suffering and as the picture below shows, I was tired. I didn’t feel tired but I certainly looked it!
Ive never had a PA in work before, but if I ever did I could get used to it. John got me plates of Porkpie, handed back my drop bag, fetched me soup. I did think it was a step too far to ask him to put the Compeed on though.
I needed to drain the blisters as they were fairly big and juicy. Niki Griffen (RD) said the paramedics could do that so I hobbled off to be told no were not allowed. Fine, we all know medically you shouldn’t drain them, but we also all know if you need to run on them it’s a drain and tape job and worry about the after effects afterwards. I didn’t have anything to pierce them though. I knew I was tired as the paramedic looked at me so simply and suggested a safety pin. Of course I said as I got all excited. They then realised they shouldn’t have offered that nugget of common sense and tried to talk me out of it but I was off happy as a kid in a sweet shop.
I had a quick look around for Michael but failing to see him knew he had already headed out and so we were off. The change of shoes and socks again felt wonderful and I was actually running with an approximate 6/1 run/walk ratio. Albeit the run was somewhere around 11mm pace. We caught Michael within half an hour or so and pushed on, still feeling refreshed and somehow confident I could now do this.
Having a pacer is incredible. If you ever get the chance to have one, do it. More than anything they help distract you from everything else going on in your head. I genuinely believe that part of the reason I could run relatively well at this point was that John and I were just chatting and passing the time. Work, his travels, house renovation, my kids etc.. Before we knew it we were through the aid station and out on the long drag along the Thames towards Reading.
This however is the worst part. Partly as everyone (not just me) is running (or walking) on close to empty, but it’s the longest distance between the mid-way aid station and turn around point, which of course means it’s the same back to that final aid station at 96.5 miles. I was now entirely focused on making sub24hrs. I did have slightly more ambitious targets earlier in the day but that was my 100 mile naivety – sub24 however was firmly in sight. I was however worried that my slow pace was going to get slower and so I wanted to be on top of ensuring we did enough to get it. I can’t think of anything worse than getting things wrong and coming in a few minutes outside 24hrs. However simple mathematics at this point wasn’t even remotely possible. Again, credit to John he had this nailed from the moment I made it clear this was essential. I must have asked him 40 times if we were alright for time, but I could see John checking his Garmin regularly even when I hadn’t asked him, this was a great reassurance.
A wave of relief came over me as we saw the ‘Welcome to Reading’ sign. However it only took seconds to recall previous FB comments and previous a100 race reports that the sign and the aid station were not even close to each other – in fact it was about another hour away.
We still had a decent walking pace at this point. John’s calculations meant we were confident that sub24 was absolutely on barring any disaster and so rather than run what I could and struggle in for 23hrs and change, but with the risk of a late stage DNF, I wanted to walk almost all the remaining miles and just ensure a finish, most likely still a sub 24hr one.
That drag to the Reading turn around point went on forever. Every corner felt like it was the one and it was only when we started to see more and more people coming back the other way we knew it was close. Then there is was, relief is an understatement but steps up to the CP – really.
We loitered for maybe 10 minutes. A grabbed a few handfuls of whatever food they had and snatched another couple of Gu’s just in case I needed a desperate last shot of something to drag myself to the end and we were off. We knew what was needed, I still felt relatively OK to continue at that pace, but by now the prospect of running anything was well and truly gone.
We managed to catch a few people and walked with them as James’ second weather prediction came in bang on time, 7am – and the heavens opened. Well and truly hammering it down. We even saw someone whose name escapes me at the moment walking with a brolly. As she said afterwards “if I walk in the rain I have a brolly and clearly I was going to be walking from 75-100 miles.” Simple but brilliant and it certainly made everyone who saw it chuckle. We also passed Timu still determined as ever to finish her first 100 within the cut off. She looked so determined and I have to confess I wasn’t sure she would make it, but credit to her she did and everyone, myself included, was so proud of her. Her birthday too.
Given how exhausted I was and how much time it took to cover the 12 miles from the turn-around point to approximately the 1 mile to go point, not a lot really happened. Maybe I was too exhausted to take it all in. John kept an eye on the time whether I kept asking him or not, and I did. But then John announced we had a mile to go and about 40 minutes to do it. Out of nowhere I was beaten. I had nothing. I actually forgot I had a Gu left and I found it in my jacket pocket the next day, but to be honest I think I was past that point. I could hardly lift my feet off the ground. A really short but sharp up and down hill took ages and John actually sat on the fence at the top waiting for me!
But now we were back on the river by the fishermen. One guy in particular sticks in my mind, he just looked at us and said ‘well done’ and I knew at that point I had done it. That last mile took ages and I was now being overtaken by a good number of people, whose race reports I have read and they mentioned finding a last minute burst of energy to finish and passing a few people moving slowly – that was me and John.
A strange thing happened now. I’d been looking out for Leighton and I hadn’t seen at any point on my way back on leg 4. I knew I could have missed him but it was light by now and I knew that was unlikely. I also knew this probably meant he had to DNF and I was gutted for him. We then had a short straight section where there was what turned out to be a small tree against a fence, but I had just accepted that Leighton had had to DNF and so this shape in the distance was obviously him waiting for me near the finish and he planned to walk in with me. 30 seconds later of course I was close enough to see it was a tree, but for a short while! It wasn’t a hallucination just a tired brain not recognising what it was looking at. Weird what the mind can do and it’s the first time I’ve had any kind of moment like that, but this was my first through the night run.
Finally though we came off the track onto the road up to the village hall and I could see the marshals and Centurion sign at the end. It was actually done. I turned to John, thanked him, shook his hand and cried – only a little but actual tears were definitely there. As I turned in front of the hall there was the usual applause from other finishers and friends and family of others and there were more tears.
I was so relieved I actually forgot to get my hug from Niki and even my buckle and photo.
Andy and Leighton were both there and Leighton unfortunately did DNF at 75 miles after being timed out, but he did confess he would have dropped anyway as he struggled to even walk at that point.
I sat down and seized up immediately but then realised I hadn’t had my photo taken. Standing up and almost losing my balance had everyone is stiches as they all thought I was practising some form of Tai Chi!
I had the monster camera of Stuart’s stuffed in my face and so there were of course more tears. The photo of me is such a good quality of image you can actually see the vague, tired, exhausted emotions behind the smile and a sense of distance in the eyes.
I also got a photo with John as I honestly believe that without John I may not have finished, let alone got sub 24. I stupidly sat down on a chair in the last aid station with 3.5 miles to go and John gave me immediate and stern words and we were off again.
I was cold, shivering, hungry, tired, elated, emotional, and a whole load of other things as well. I called my wife and did facetime for the first time ever which was a bit confusing in my physical and mental state, but it was amazing to see my wife and children so happy to see me and for me.
After finally getting warm we tried to manoeuvre ourselves to Andy’s car for the drive home. I won’t bore you with the full details but needless to say it took a while and was I’m sure it was very funny for onlookers. I’m not quite sure how Andy looked so fresh following his run. I know he had finished 4 hours ahead of me, but I didn’t look like he did 4 hours after I finished I can assure you of that!
Leighton slept all the way back to Bristol and I dropped in and out of sleep for a short while. Again getting from Andy’s car to mine was laughable to anyone who would have seen it at Andy’s house. Once we were out of his car I could sense Andy considering what he should do. I suggested he go in his house rather than feel the need to see us off, as we were clearly going to take another 15 minutes to move the few yards necessary.
We stopped in via KFC en route to Leighton’s and I made some blatant bad decisions with regards to directions both getting to Leighton’s and then from his to the Motorway. I also had to pull in at Magor Services as I could feel myself getting tired and I slept in the car for an hour and a half.
Once home there were more silly antics of getting from the car to the front door, upstairs to bed and even into bed. Rather than get under the duvet I lay on top and had to build a nest of pillows around me to keep warm as I couldn’t get off and back on the bed again. I felt a bit better after a bath and some food and a relatively early night.
The following day I was thankfully off work and I just sat of the sofa all day watching box sets on Sky. My feet were much worse than I realised and it took until Thursday for the swelling to go down.
3 weeks on and I am still kind of in shock at what I managed to achieve and I am still wearing my finishers t-shirt to dress down days at work on a Friday J.
What did I learn:
– I can run (cover) 100 miles in 24 hours – awesome!!
– It is however much harder than I expected!
– I wasted too much time in aid stations, despite trying to ensure I didn’t.
– Gu’s are brilliant.
– Porkpie is even better.
– Pacers are worth their weight in gold.
– Centurion events are incredible in every way – including weather forecasts.
– Perhaps GUCR or KACR in 2017 is a push too far (at the moment)
– I really, really love running ultras and the whole ultra community.
– I love the Ridgeway.
– I don’t like the Thames Path.
Everyone should run a 100 miler even if just once.
Thanks for reading.