Packing and arrival
The Centurion Thames Path 100 Mile was to be my first 100 mile event. This and my sub-3 marathon attempt at Manchester a few weeks ago were the “big” events for me this year. Big as in “really looking forward to”, rather than necessarily distance or speed.
Preparation for this one started a long time ago. The mandatory kit list had been bought over a number of months to spread the cost and I’d trained in all of it to make sure it worked for me. The distances had been logged, week-in, week-out. I’d laid out all of my gear the weekend before, checked it was all present, packed it away. The day before the race I laid it all out again. Naomi double checked it with me. Compressed down, it fitted nicely into my race pack – a Salomon UltraLab Sense 8.
A separate draw string bag had a complete change of warm running gear to be sent to the Mile 51 checkpoint at Henley. In the week before the race numerous people had repeatedly said that the night stretch would be colder than whatever I expected it to be, so the night before I put together a second drop bag, with additional warm layers, and labelled that up to be sent to the Mile 71 checkpoint just in case.
Off to be bed for an early night, then up at dawn, saying goodbye to Naomi (she would be heading to the finish at Oxford to meet her and my parents). I jumped on the train to Waterloo, munching on a bagel I’d put together the previous night. I really hate eating before a race – if I’m running a marathon a pot of porridge is more than enough to see me through – but for 100 Miles I knew I’d need something more.
Arriving at Waterloo I grabbed a coffee, jumped on the next train to Richmond and arrived with plenty of time to spare. Wandering round to the registration point at the Town Hall I walked into a friend that I ran the 10 ultras in 10 days with last August. It was his third 100 Miler and we had a brief chat about strategies (he would end up dropping out in the first half of this race with breathing difficulties).
I’d been told repeatedly how efficient Centurion registration was and it turned out to be so. Three pieces of mandatory kit had been selected for checking from the longer list and written on a whiteboard. Headtorch (and backup), waterproof and long-sleeve base layer. I took them out of my pack, showed them to the volunteer who then gave me my token, which I then took to the second desk and exchanged it for my race number.
Popping outside, I gave in my two drop bags for Miles 51 and 71, went off for another coffee and then lined up on the start line ready for 9.30.
The First Marathon Stretch
In my mind, the strategy was to hit Mile 51 Henley in around 8.5 hours. That would mean averaging a 6 minute 12 second per km pace and would then give me 15.5 hours to complete the second half and still finish in sub-24 hours.
Naturally, I set off way too fast. The first few KMs went by and I was averaging around 5/12 per km. 1 minute per km too fast isn’t much on paper, but over 51 miles (82km), that’s 82 minutes too fast. But I really struggle to run slower. 5 minute kms are my natural pace – not racing, not slogging. Just the pace my legs will naturally go to when I start a run and it often hurts my legs more to consciously slow it down.
Right from the start I knew that my mind was in the wrong place. Running is my thing. It’s how I clear my head and sort things out. Not this time. For some reason my mind turned on itself, turning every slight twinge into something big, telling me I wasn’t enjoying it and there was 100 Miles of it to go.
The first stretch was ok. The sun had come out the heat was increasing. I fell into step alongside my director (Rebecca) from a previous job who’s done loads of these and is attempting the Centurion 100 Mile 4-race grand-slam this year.
We ran on, progressing towards Walton-on-Thames. This stretch, the 7-10km towpath from Hampton Court to Walton Bridge was probably the only stretch that my mind was really in it. I’ve covered hundreds of miles up and down this section as it’s the location of most of the Phoenix races that I run most months (see the 10-in-10 recap here).
Rebecca paused for a quick drink and I pressed on, getting a slight mental boost when I passed the Weir Pub, the finish line for Phoenix events. On to Walton-Bridge and the first checkpoint at Mile 12. I grabbed a cup of Tailwind, munched on a bit of chocolate and headed straight back out, over Walton Bridge to the North Bank.
Shortly afterwards Rebecca caught up and we ran alongside each other until about marathon distance, at which point I dropped back slightly and she pulled away. It can’t be overstated how much it helps to have someone to chat to on these kind of distances. It forms a kind of mental tether and you find yourself being pulled along beside them. On the other hand, you have to run your own pace. Trying to run slower to run with someone can completely mess with your race plans and running faster to try and keep pace with someone is a quick way to wrecking your legs.
51 Miles to Henley
By now, I was running by myself, occasionally passing people and occasionally being passed. In all honesty, a lot of the Thames Path route looks the same. The river meanders, with row upon row of £Million+ houses lining the waterfront. My favourite bits of the route were those where we left the river for diversions, heading in through small towns where people cheered us on, or through fields and meadows which broke up the endless river.
The sun was out in full by this point and I was glad I’d made the right decision. At the start line it was cold and windy so I’d put my hat in a waterproof bag in my pack. 5 minutes before the start I’d changed my mind and got it back out again. I’m glad I did as stopping to rummage through packs is a right faff. Lesson learned – don’t judge the weather by whatever it’s doing at 9am.
By this point I’d started taking gels to keep my calories and energy up. I use chocolate flavour GU Energy and normally I’m not only fine with them, but actually enjoy them. For some reason, and probably as part of my mental state, I struggled to get them down. Instead I ended up relying almost exclusively on the mix of Tailwind and Coke in my bottles. That’s fine in the short term but after 50 miles of it, struggling to take on calories from any other source would become a real issue.
Heading through one of the waterfront towns, I managed to miss a sign marking (some passers-by had stopped to read the sign and were blocking it in the process). Fortunately I’d only gone about 50 metres before people were shouting at me from behind to come back – only a tiny diversion but it made me a bit nervous about missing signs in the night stretches.
Suddenly the skies darkened and it started to hammer down with rain. I was fortunate as I was just approaching a bridge so I ducked under it for cover while I slipped my race waterproof out and headed back out. I joined up with a couple of other guys as were approaching the Dorney checkpoint and suddenly the rain turned to hail.
The hail taught me a valuable lesson about wearing racing shorts during an ultra. Hail stings on uncovered legs. It was also a good reminder of why mandatory kit lists exist. I didn’t need to use any of my other kit, but the day had started off sunny and hail was unthinkable. You never know what’s going to turn up over that kind of distance.
I arrived at Dorney and the sun was out again, blazing hot. Off came the waterproof and back into my bag. The skies were clear. 10 minutes later it was pouring with rain again. Back out came the waterproof and after this I just left it on despite the sun returning. I was just fed up of stopping.
The next 10 miles or so were unremarkable. I switched from a constant run to a “run 4.5km and then fast walk the next 0.5” to preserve some energy as I was still struggling with food. Through the Cookham checkpoint and out towards Hurly.
We passed through an open meadow and there was a string of about 10 of us there at the same time. A couple of large dogs bounded up and started jumping up on us as we staggered on, their owners calling that they “are just being friendly”. That might be so, but when you’re at mile 40 and just trying to keep moving, it’s not helpful.
On I plodded. Through Hurley. There’s a 7 mile stretch between Hurley and Henley and this is where I broke. My mind was in open rebellion. “You’re not enjoying this. It’s stupid. You could literally be anywhere else that’s warm and dry. Naomi, her parents and your parents are having a nice dinner now. You could be too. Just give them a call”.
A small part of my mind was still clinging on and told the other part to shut up. One foot forward, then the other. In theory, an easy thing.
As I arrived in Henley there were a few people walking in the other direction who were trying to be encouraging. I love people cheering me on. It can give a real boost. However, there’s nothing worse than someone who gets it wrong. They’d obviously walked passed the checkpoint and not knowing how long the race was, thought it was the finish.
“You’re almost at the end! Sprint finish!”
“I’ve got 50 bloody miles to go!”, my mind shouted. Instead I mumbled a “Yeah, thanks” and headed through the town to the checkpoint by the river.
Slogging away to a DNF
I snapped a quick picture and popped it on to Instagram. I always find it amazing how so many complete strangers are so amazingly supportive on there. Constant messages of encouragement and support for someone they’ve never even met.
Although I made it to the next checkpoint at Reading at Mile 58, the checkpoint at Henley at 51 is really where my race ended. The plan for the checkpoints was always “Get in, get out”. I know from experience that the longer you linger at a checkpoint, the harder it is both mentally and physically to get back out again.
I grabbed my drop bag with my warm set of new clothes and asked where the toilets were. They pointed back the way I’d come from. “There’s a block back there, about 300 meters”. I trudged back the way I’d come and spent about 15 minutes just trying to drag new clothes on. Eventually I succeeded and trudged back to the checkpoint again.
I needed calories. One of the volunteers gave me a bowl of cheesy pasta. I sat down and somehow managed to get it down me, followed by a coffee to warm me up. I made the mistake of telling myself I’d leave in just one more minute. The problem is there’s always one more minute. By the time I dragged myself out of the checkpoint, I’d been there for almost an hour. In terms of cut-offs, that was fine. I was several hours ahead. But mentally I was finished.
I’d messaged Naomi saying I didn’t want to carry on and she gave me a call. “I’m not going to tell you what you want me to tell you.” Quite right too. I was being a coward. I’d messaged because part of my brain wanted her to tell me to stop as it gave me a way out. But that was a massively unfair pressure to put on her – unfortunately my mind wasn’t in a place capable of processing that.
On I went. Darkness descended quickly so I got my head torch out and pressed on. By now I was running 2km and then walking 0.5km. Fortunately my earlier concerns about missing signs in the dark was ill-founded. Reflective strips had been attached to them meaning they shone back in the torchlight. If anything they were easier to spot than in the day.
The miles went on and I still had no sign of Reading. My Garmin said I should have been there 5km ago. I knew I wasn’t lost as I was still passing signs and there were other runners, but it was another nail in the mental coffin. I called Naomi and this time made the decision myself. “Come and collect me from Reading”. My head and heart weren’t in it.
Eventually the checkpoint came into view. Sarah Place, who I know from GoodGym running and who had done her first 100 milers the year before, went passed me and I put on a burst of speed which came easily, so that I could draw up beside her – proof that physically I was fine and that it was the mental game I was losing. She tried to encourage me to carry on but I was done.
I stopped at the checkpoint while the volunteers tried to urge me back out. I refused and sat down on a sofa. I wouldn’t move again until Naomi and the parents arrived. Sarah told her boyfriend Ben (Parkes, who won the Centurion North Downs Way 50 Miles a couple of months ago) who came up and gave me a pep-talk. Genuinely much appreciated but nothing was going to get me back out at that point.
My family arrived and I gave my race number in before getting in the car. Back to the house we were staying in near Oxford and into bed. Steve (Naomi’s puppy but totally mine) could tell there was something wrong so curled up on top of me and refused to move the entire night.
The next morning was painful, but not physically. Physically, I was fine. I could have gone for a run there and then. But instead we had to drive to the finish line to collect my drop bags. Runners were still finishing, crossing the line and getting their medals. And I wasn’t because my brain had turned on itself. That hurt.
But I try to learn from my mistakes. I know a number of things that went wrong (with checkpoints, changes of clothes, pacing etc) and will take those lessons into the next attempt. And I’ll focus on getting my mind in the right space for the start line.
My next “big distance” races are the Cotswolds Way 100km on 29th June then the Centurion North Downs Way 100 Mile on 3rd August. Grudge match!
Before the Cotswolds Way I’m squeezing in one marathon and six “baby” ultras, including five ultras in four days.
So a lot to look forward to, a lot of training to get done and a lot of opportunities for improvement. Always moving forwards!