“So how far is it?”
I was just preparing for the Friday night drive to Goring with my girlfriend Cate as we’d planned to make a long weekend of it and stay in the usually sleep Berkshire village. She plugged the postcode into the map on the phone and told me it would take about an hour and a half.
“How many miles though?”
“Ugh. Seems like a long way.”
Even as I said it I realised how ridiculous it was to say such a thing when I was about to attempt a 100-mile foot race the very next day. It just goes to show how I had been thinking about the race. It’s six miles, then another six, turn around, another six, one more six and back to the start. Then off again, and so on, bit by bit. Not 100 miles in one go because that’s too much.
Even 50 miles in a car is too much, mind.
Once we arrived, the weekend couldn’t have begun any better as we a) got the last parking spot right outside The Miller of Mansfield (which luckily isn’t in Mansfield) where we were staying and b) I made it to kit check and registration just in time before it closed that evening. There was plenty of time in the morning but I wanted to avoid all that and so seeing Nici Griffin, James Elson and Louise Ayling, amongst other Centurion stalwarts was a reassuring kick-off to proceedings. A leisurely meal with Cate, (pre-race ‘mention’) Dudley and his wife Irene, left me feeling relaxed and ready for sleep before the big day.
The Miller of Mansfield makes delicious food, as evinced by the guinea fowl I’d had the previous evening. (And yes, that’s the fanciest pre-race meal I’ve ever had.) What it doesn’t do is huge portions. So as well as the pancakes I ordered for breakfast, I had a bowl of muesli, a banana and a couple of coffees to set me up for the day. I’m not a believer in carb-loading for ultras as I’ll be grazing all day anyway. If I bonk, I’m doing it all wrong.
My original plan had been wear my old Saucony Peregrines for the first half and then switch to my new ones for a comfier second half. At the last minute I decided that I might as well go for comfort from the start. What could go wrong?
Despite not needing to go to registration, I popped by to see if I could see anyone I knew and between there and the briefing across the river in Streatley, met Conrad for the first time, and also saw Sarah, Bryan, Phil, as well as Ilsuk, Sean and Bex, my old Ridgeway Challenge buddies.
Bex in particular had showed an interest in adopting my 9 minutes run, 1 minute walk approach which I was planning to do from the off. As she and Seanie tend to start these races at pace, they wanted to rein it in and I was more than happy to call out “Walkies!” every 10 minutes.
As we made our way along the Thames Path in the general direction of Oxford, I recognised very little of it despite having run it before. However, I couldn’t blame the dark on my tripping up and executing an elegant forward roll after less than two miles. Good to get it out of the way early though – I was a lot more careful after that.
These are the most fun miles of any ultra. Everyone (near me at least) is taking it easy, chatting, smiling and on this occasion, enjoying the sunshine. There were a few supporters out on the course, most notably a couple with balloons and a list of race entrants which they used to call out our names as we passed, which was a lovely touch.
Not too long after the first checkpoint, where I saw Irene and Cate, the race leader came barrelling past in the opposite direction, followed quickly by two more of the chasing pack. Soon I started seeing more people I knew and expected be near the front, like Jess Gray, fellow Fulham Running Club star Cat Simpson, Dudley and another Fulham runner Leo, who on his first 100 was either killing the race or himself to be in the top ten so early on.
As we approached the 12-mile turnaround point, I saw Matt Teague who I’d forgotten was racing, and not long after, Con and Sarah, who left me hanging for a high five I’m still waiting for.
My concerns soon refocused on my left hamstring which was complaining, and slightly too early in a race of this length. Then it dawned on me. By taking my new shoes, I’d forgotten to switch my small but significant heel lift from my old shoe, meaning I was now unbalanced. Over a short run I can cope with this but with 87 miles left I was going to struggle or even break down completely. Luckily, the spares were in my drop bag so I would put it in at 25 miles and hope not too much damage was already done.
Aside from a 10-yard detour when I was too busy talking to see “Vaseline Alley” (a reference to my Thames Path 100 experience – don’t ask), the journey back to base was uneventful. Seanie was struggling with the pace at times but he usually takes about a marathon to warm up anyway.
Goring 25(ish) miles: 4h18m (135th place)
After a relatively quick turnaround at which I put the insert into my shoe, I set off down the Ridgeway with Bex and Seanie in tow, my role as Pied Piper apparently established. With both of them requiring regular stretch breaks however, I found myself keen to pick up the pace a bit and left them to it for stretches, only for them to catch me up at a hill or gate. Mentally, I think it’s important to find a rhythm and while it didn’t make a huge difference, I felt better for having the chance to stretch my legs a bit. I think I also completed a 50k PB here – although I couldn’t work out whether this was brilliant or terrible news. Had I set off way too fast or was I in great shape? Or both?
As we hit Grim’s Ditch – a wonderful piece of undulating wooded single-track – I saw Cat who was going well as third lady and Dudley who wasn’t happy with his dodgy ankle and looked set to drop at Goring. There was no sign of Leo who I later found out from Ilsuk had taken a wrong turn and added on three ‘bonus’ miles. Not ideal but if anyone could cope it was Leo.
Eventually I reached Swyncombe (37 miles), refuelled, gave Grand Slammer (some people do all four Centurion 100-milers in a single year!) Mark Thornberry some encouragement, put on my jacket as it was starting to rain (spookily bang on 5pm, just when James had said it would) and set off again. The break hadn’t done my left knee any favours though and it took a good few minutes of walking before I could run without any pain. This section back to Goring has more down than up and when I was moving easily again I took advantage, fairly flying along the trails (relatively speaking) as I put off firing up the headtorch for as long as possible.
After a while I caught up with Ilsuk who looked a bit lost and we set off towards the North Stoke checkpoint together for a bit to eat. Before we left, Bex and Seanie had arrived so we knew they were still going strong. As we left, my knee once again complained and for a moment I was worried I wouldn’t be able to run at all. But within a few minutes I was fine. Leaving Ilsuk to take photos of the setting sun, I pushed on in need of some halfway nourishment.
Goring 50 miles: 9h42m (108th place)
Assuming this was 50 miles, I was just 8 minutes outside my PB for the distance, albeit on a more forgiving course than the North Downs Way. So again, I was wondering if I’d gone off too fast. I felt in good shape through and in the absence of pasta which would have been my first choice, a cup of tomato soup with croutons and tea (not mixed) did the trick. I changed my t-shirt for a long-sleeved merino wool layer and was about to leave when Sarah Sawyer threatened to throw me out for hanging around too long. That’ll teach me to wait for Ilsuk. I probably did faff about too much here as I’d also heard from Seanie that Bex was having trouble with her ankles, but he was waiting to run with her so off I went.
Within a mile of leaving Goring, I noticed that the bottom of my left shin was sore. I loosened the laces on my shoe and caught up with Ilsuk who, like the rest of those around us, was walking up the long road to the top of the Ridgeway. I’d always planned to walk this hill but I soon noticed that I was moving considerably faster than everyone else, including one guy who was running. Before too long I was on my own in the darkness, and then, as I emerged from the tree-lined path, in the bright light. The moon was, if not full, pretty close, and with a cloudless sky it was a beautiful night for running. I still needed my torch for the trickier parts but for long sections I conserved batteries and walked and ran by the light of the silvery moon.
After a good while I finally reached the Bury Downs checkpoint, a welcome tent on a hill where I stopped long enough to grab a warming cup of tea and marched on towards the next one.
People often ask what I think about when I run long distances and the short answer is I don’t know. After 60 miles and at night, I’m mainly monitoring how I feel and asking myself searching questions.
Am I hungry? (A bit. Have a gel anyway, it can’t do any harm.)
When did I last have an S!Cap? (On the hour. You know the rules.)
Is that a bush or a cat looking at me? (It was a bush looking at me.)
Is this uphill or do I need to try and convince myself to run this bit? (Definitely uphill.)
When will I get to the turnaround point? (About 11pm.)
How long until I get back to Goring at my current pace? (Another three hours after that.)
I saw Chain Hill, the 62.5 mile turnaround point, from half a mile away. The flashing multicoloured lights gave away the location of the “rave tent”. It’s aptly named, with techno being pumped out of the speakers, white pills readily available, and people in various degrees of joy and distress, some full of energy, others slumped in chairs. I was starting to get cold when I wasn’t moving so grabbed another tea, thanked the rave organisers and danced out the door. As I was leaving I bumped into Ilsuk just as he was arriving. He said he’d catch me up so I pressed on. Shortly after that I saw Seanie who told me Bex had run 100 yards out of HQ before deciding to drop. I was surprised because of the two of them, I thought she’d been in better shape earlier.
For me, it was onwards and downwards. With tea in hand, I was still marching at a decent clip and got some friendly abuse from a fellow runner regarding “how unfair is it that his legs are so fucking long”. I apologised and strode off into the blackness.
By this point, my shin was hurting a lot more and for the most part I wasn’t running the downhills. For some of the flats I broke into a trot but mainly I walked as it seemed to be the quickest and least painful way to move. I was also remembering Paul Simpson’s race report from the previous year in which he described how he walked every step of the second half and still finished in under 24 hours. Now, I didn’t want to walk that much – I came to run – but now I was this far along, it seemed stupid to potentially worsen my injury and have to drop. If I could get back to Goring at 2am, that gave me 8 hours to walk 25 miles and still get the one day buckle I’d come for.
Goring 75 miles – 16h03m (94th)
By the time I reached Goring I was getting cold, so I put on an extra layer, changed my buff for a beanie and got my mittens out to take with me on the final leg. A small bowl of chilli con carne with bread warmed me up and before long Ilsuk showed up. With no sign of Seanie, we set off with one thing in mind – get back before 10am.
We soon saw Jess Gray and then a while later Cat with her dad Keith pacing her, and they were on for brilliant finishes: Jess 2nd lady, 5th overall in 16:42 and Cat, 3rd lady, 11th overall and in 17:24.
Despite my protests, Ilsuk would now and then suggest running for a bit which my leg wasn’t happy about but just about managed. We reached the Whitchurch checkpoint in an hour or so and saw James pacing Leo before we saw the man himself. James seemed to be struggling more than Leo, which is no slight on James, just a huge compliment to the man who would finish his first ever 100 in 18h31m and 15th place.
If anything though, these acts of inspiration left me feeling even more desperate about the task ahead. This was going to be a long night. We walked and ran a bit, I protested that it hurt too much, Ilsuk ran ahead and I tried to catch him with my fast walking or he’d wait a bit and let me catch up.
Then fog swept in across the fields by the Thames and for a moment I wasn’t in a race, I was just someone out in the countryside at night doing something ridiculous for no good reason and it was fun. Pointless but kind of exhilarating. I clearly needed to eat something.
Once you get through the housing estate, you go down, at a conservative estimate, 6 million steps at Tilehurst station and back onto the Thames Path where the infamous ‘Welcome to Reading’ sign awaits. Experience told me that this meant it was another four miles to the checkpoint. But what a four miles. It’s hard to capture in words just how slow time seems to go when you’re at mile 83 and your leg doesn’t like moving and yet moving is the one and only thing that will bring an end to the pain. Well, other than dropping out and that was not going to happen. Not this time.
Finally, finally, the “Reading” – let’s be done with it and call it Windsor shall we? – checkpoint hove into glorious view and I just had to climb the steps (bastards), order a tea and ‘lighten the load’ before heading out the door with Ilsuk once more.
It was 6am. We had four hours to get our sub-24 finish.
“Shall we run?” said Ilsuk. “I don’t think walking will be quick enough.”
“I think it will. But you go. I’ll see you in Goring.”
And off he trotted into the rain that had just started to fall. I wondered whether I had it in me to run through the pain to get the sub-24 if it came to it. I honestly wasn’t sure if I wanted it that much but quickly removed the thought from my head. I was going to do this. I just needed to keep moving.
It wasn’t so much that I couldn’t run or that it hurt, although it did. It was more the fear of risking further injury and having a repeat of last time. Having to drop out at 95 miles once was bad enough. Twice in the last 10 miles would just be stupidity. Play the percentages. Lay up in front of the stream. Don’t be be Tin Cup. (If you’ve never seen Tin Cup, get on that immediately – absolutely peak Kevin Costner, and a much underrated film.)
Keep walking, no slacking.
Ignore the rain, it won’t last.
Daylight is coming.
As I approached Tilehurst and the Welcome to Reading sign again, more and more people were coming towards me, also on their way to a finish. I gave everyone a “well done” and felt for them, because that stretch is really tough, and they’d been out just as long as me with a lot further to go. Their will to carry on was incredible.
Earlier in the day I’d heard Rachel Lonergan say she had an umbrella in her drop bag, which I thought was a great gag. Then, as I was heading back towards the river, there she was, with her umbrella. Genius. Truly. If you’re walking anyway, why not stay dry?
Then it was the endless fields to Whitchurch. Familiar faces battling their way on. Phil. Kate. Graham, still smiling and accompanied by his pacer Rod. Tinu, still moving forwards, desperate for her first 100 finish, at her third attempt, on her birthday (she would go on get her buckle with half an hour to spare). Finally, there was Dan Park sweeping, a man who really knows how to give a high five, and that was the last person I’d see coming towards me.
The white bridge at Whitchurch.
I don’t hang about as it’s 8:20am and I only have about four miles to go. Barring a bear attack, I’ve got this in the bag. I start to smile. A few people around me are shuffling to glory but I’m happy to walk it in, and even manage to overtake a couple of people as they limp to the end. I’m through the last of the fields and onto the footpath. The end is close. I’ve been dreaming about this and I ready myself for 100 yards of running up to the village hall and for the first time I get a tiny bit emotional.
There’s a lump in my throat but I swallow it down when I see Cate and give her the biggest, happiest (and probably smelliest) hug before going inside to get my number taken and I can’t stop smiling. I think I did a little dance in front of the timers and couldn’t care less what they think. I see Louise who seems to have been there for about 36 hours and give her a hug whether she likes it or not.
Goring 100 miles – 23h26m (95th)
Hug from Centurion godmother Nici, buckle, photo from Stuart, and a sit down from which I would struggle to get up. But so happy.
Nearly two weeks on, I’ve had plenty of time to assess my race. Being a greedy and ungrateful so-and-so, I’m a little disappointed not to have got my secret 22-hour finish. But actually, any finish would have been amazing so I’m still very proud of sub-24. I need to get stronger and fitter if I want to improve at this distance, while I’m feeling more and more comfortable at the 50 mile event. And considering that I only did my first marathon three years ago at the ripe old age of 40, I think I’ve made some good progress.
Thanks and apologies
Both of these to Cate, who is so supportive despite understandably spending the whole of these races worried while I’m enjoying myself. Turning up at 2am having had no sleep really is exceptional crewing, as well as the inevitable after care as I hobble around for days after. Love you.
Thanks to Centurion for another flawlessly executed race, and your mind reading volunteers who knew better than I what I wanted most of the time. Apologies if I failed to thank anyone but I tried my best. You were all outstanding in your field, in some cases literally. Out, standing in your… oh, never mind.
Thanks also to Ilsuk for dragging me to Reading, and to Seanie and Bex for keeping me company and putting up with running off like an excited puppy when I saw “a good bit”.
Many thanks to everyone who sponsored me – I’ve raised over £550 for the Motor Neurone Disease Association.
Post Script alert: I found out much, much later that having ‘dropped’, Bex had actually been persuaded to carry on and had ground out a finish, despite her feet problems. What a hero. Seanie meanwhile had stopped at mile 75, saving himself for the Centurion 50 Grand Slam. Still, not a bad effort on basically zero training!
And finally, congratulations to everyone who started and everyone who finished. It takes a lot of dedication, effort and guts to even be there and I’m honoured to be a part of a special club. By which I mean the ultrarunning community. Getting this…
… is just the icing on a delicious cake. Mmm, cake.