I still can't believe it...I lived through my first 100-miler! Last Saturday (and Sunday!). I joined 274 other runners at the Thames Path 100 mile race that starts in Richmond and finishes in Oxford. Although the weather was definitely not optimal there were extraordinary performances by all the volunteers and race direction. We had a fun-filled day full of smiles, tears, and breakthrough performances. This was my first 100 and I can see now why those belt buckles are so cherished - it's hard not to get too emotional thinking about what an adventure it was and the support given by everyone involved.
|We're all going on a long run|
I had raced the South Downs 50m four weeks ago as a qualifier for this race as it had been 4 years since my last 50+ mile race so given that I came through the unscathed and happy with a new PB I couldn't wait to do this race. Although I hadn't recce'd the course I was hoping the "glimpse of heaven" and "taste of hell" feeling ahead would settle some of the pre race nerves I had. I know I'd done the training and a solid fifty mile race but seeing my pack and drop bags laid out I started to think, What had I got myself into?
|Happy Smiles early on - photo C/O Sarah Barker|
It was great fun to see everyone at pre-race registration on Saturday morning, and I found comfort in the fact that there would be some familiar faces out there with me racing the distance. I bumped into David Barker who I work with, Rodrgio Freeman, Bryan Webster and Ashley Hurd who were all running the Centurion Grand Slam and David's wife Sarah who had the pleasure of crewing for. It was the first time I had gotten the chance to say hello in person so that was nice as well.
|Sorry your going how far? - photo c/o Sarah Barker|
As we made our way down to the 9.45am race briefing there was constant chatter about the weather forecast but for now it was dry and bright with a little bit of a chill but better than what it would be like later. Allan Rumbles came over and wished David and I the best of luck with a beaming smile. No sense in being nervous now - we were either ready or not and the 100 miles between us and the finish would soon tell us, there was an eerie calm and lots of people wishing people a good journey. Then James Elson sent us off!
|The anxious wait to start the journey - photo C/O Sarah Barker|
The front runners flew off the start line like a rocket, with Max Willcocks and Sam Robson leading the front line. The first few miles were fast and furious and I was feeling very good but knew that this early crazy pace would slow down (at least for me).
How does one pace the first 11 mile of a 100-miler? After deciding to slow down I was going to run based on my heart rate. I had done this countless times in training and it had help gotten me into shape however with the fact that this race was more or less flat the whole way I had to introduce walking early on. However for the first 90 minutes I didn't feel comfortable at all and glancing at my HR monitor on my garmin I could see my HR was not settling plus the strap was not comfortable.
The day was proving to be very warm indeed and I decided to go bare chested and put my t-shirt in my bag as well as my baselayer. I must have looked a little strange as I was the only one doing this but I felt much more comfortable and began to feel a whole lot better.
|Ultra Tarzan coming through!|
After another 10 minutes I reached the aid station. The volunteers at Centurion races are amazing and had us in and out very quickly. I stopped for about 30 seconds to grab a Gu gel and a water bottle refill. One of the volunteers commented on giving me a belt buckle if I still looked like that at the end! I laughed and said I would do my best. This section felt tough so I made sure I would focus on getting fluids down along with some S-Caps over the coming miles After 30 minutes or so I started to feel a little bit cooler yet not 100 percent so decided to break into a walk and put my t-shirt back on.
CP1 - Walton on Thames - 11 miles
I was plodding along before and then heard a familiar voice behind me and turned around to see Rodrigo who was coasting along nicely. He asked me what time I was aiming to be at Henley for and said that possibly around 9 1/2 - 10 hours. Rod was aiming for a sub 20 hr race and knew that if he hit Henley in around 8 1/2 hours he had a cracking chance. Before I said to Rod to go on without me he said to me "Rich I think you are going to smash 24 hours". I thanked him for that confidence in me before he ran on ahead.
|Feeling a bit better now!|
I ran into the aid station at Wraysbury in around 3 hours 45 minutes, had my water bottles refilled, grabbed some mini sausages and a cheese wrap which went down really well before moving out of the station back onto the towpath. Keep it simple.
CP2 - Wraysbury - 22 miles
A couple of miles after the aid station turned into one of my favourite parts of the race. I started talking to another runner pretty much for the first time since the start of the race. His name was Bob and we got on really well. I found out over the next few hours that Bob had done a few Ironman races, the Grand Union Canal 145 in 33 hours and was using this race as a warm up for the Thames Ring 250, WTF! Bob shared my affection for Doritos and Red wine and we had good chat about all kinds of thing and had banter for pretty much the next 3 sections of the race. The miles ticked by and I hardly noticed it.
CP3 - Dorney - 30.5 miles
Just before the aid station we caught up with Sarah and Tom Sawyer who I had talked to at the South Downs 50 briefly and on Facebook leading up to the race. Sarah was in despair about how flat the route was "I want my hills of the South Downs" she cried. At this point I completely agreed with her although I must admit it suited me a great deal as I live and train on the flat all the time.
We arrived at Dorney not knowing the exact split time since the last station but it was around 5 hours 15 mins. I felt really good and full of energy. I stuck to refilling my bottles with water, more sausages and cheese before leaving the station pretty quickly. I meet Bob while coming out and we jogged on.
CP4 - Cookham - 38 miles
As Bob and I moved on at a comfortable pace mixing in some fast walking I had a knack of spotting the Thames Path signs from some distance off which helped with navigation. It was all going so well until we took a wrong turn along a path which we thought the sign and race tape indicated towards but in fact we ended up in the middle of a street where there was no tape or signs! A few other runners joined us including Sarah / Tom and I thought it was probably best to trek back or get my map out. Just as I was about to do that a motorist pointed us down the road to get back onto the path as she had seen a group of runners only a minute or so ago. We were literally on top of the Cookham aid station and yet we had made a silly mistake. Oh well a couple minutes here and there was no big deal.
The aid station was fairly busy with all of us there but we didn't stay long with pretty much the same approach as at the last aid station and moved out quickly once done.
CP5 - Hurley - 44 miles
The next section went by again pretty quickly and apart from kicking my left toe a few times on rocks and stones our pacing had been consistent for the last 20 miles. We were in and out of the the Hurley aid station with my current winning formula. I still fancied eating the sausage and cheese and not much else to be honest. My stomach felt good. Bob's advice race strategy from the start had been to make sure to walk fast for significant chunks of the race and this was working also. It's a good point to mention because later on in the race so many peoples legs had completely gone. Not only does this give you a break mentally but also it uses other muscles and gives some of your muscles used in the running motion a rest and he was damn good at it which helped me move along as well.
During the next 7 miles to Henley I was looking around at the beautiful houses along the towpath with a few people standing on the balconies enjoying their evening drinks before kicking the night off. Bob mentioned that he was going to address the blisters he could feel cropping up on one of his feet as well. As we entered Henley there were lots of people buzzing about clapping us in and before we knew it we had arrived at the aid station, mile 51 at approximately 7.40pm.
CP6 - Henley - 51 miles
James Adams was on drop bag duty when I arrived and asked me my number and whether I had a drop bag which I replied to yes I do and it's a small Karimoor Orange bag. After 30 seconds I had my bag in my hands and made my way to the nearest chair to sit down and get a few things sorted. A volunteer offered if I would like some pasta bolognese and a cup of tea which sounded absolutely brilliant. I had always planned to sit down and change my socks and shirt and to eat a bowl of whatever was served. When I had changed my socks I got my phone out and rang my my wife who said I was doing great and in abouut 85th position but David was in 5th place! Way to go Dave! She wished me luck and to try and speak to her when I could. After finishing the call I checked the football results. Surely West Ham can beat Burnley!? After devouring the bowl of pasta bolognese I waited for the 4G to kick in on my phone and could see that West Ham had indeed won 1-0! The small pleasures of hot food, fresh clothes and a trivial football result reinforce my positive outlook on the race. I felt recharged and ready for what lay ahead.
I stood up with ease and put my pack back on before marching out with refilled water bottles and a couple extra snacks for later. I saw Bob on the bench dealing with his feet and asked him if he wanted to wait for me. He said not to worry and that he would catch me up later. It had been great running with him for the last 25 miles or so and I was a bit sad to be leaving him at this point but we'd had a great innings. I said that if I didn't see him later that I would catch up at the finish line although I would have no Doritos to share by then! I left the aid station at 7.55pm so I was still under 10 hours for the first 51 miles and pretty pleased with that.
CP7 - Reading - 58 miles
After reaching a footbridge that traversed the river I burst into a jog, I just felt so good so I went with it. I started to pass other runners as I moved along saying hello to a few but I wasn't intent on hanging around as I knew this good feeling wouldn't last. After a couple miles I returned to walking and noticed it was getting dark so pulled out my head torch in preparation for the sun going down. I spotted a runner all in black walking along and after pulling up alongside him started a conversation. His name was Thomas (Thomas Garrod I found out later post race). He was looking to smash his time from last year having done the race and smash his PB all being well. Thomas was walking fast and I was able to keep up. As we marched along we had other runners yo-yo'ing forwards and backwards. Thomas said that he was going to push on and we said our goodbyes and I wished him luck.
By this time it was very dark so I switched my head torch on. I still felt good and knowing that I had covered more miles than what lay ahead made a big difference mentally. For the next couple miles I had a brief conversation with another runner called Phil who was looking forward to meeting up with his crew at Reading. Not long after Phil saw his wife and crew with a big smile on his face so I headed on up to have a drink and grab some food from the aid station. I marched up the stairs which surprised the volunteers on the door but I replied saying that "I was looking forward to a walk uphill with all this flat!".
The aid station was being managed by Susie Chan, Sean Marsden and Paul Ali. As always the guys were asking what you needed as soon as you entered the door. I wanted a cup of tea and although I didn't feel like eating I knew that I had to have something. I grabbed a ham and cheese wrap plus some watermelon. Wow! That really hit the spot. It was so refreshing that I had 3 pieces before I left with my tea. I said goodbye to everyone and headed back down the stairs. I hadn't a clue what time it was but knew I hadn't too badly yet.
CP8 - Whitchurch - 67 miles
As I was moving down the towpath another runner jogged up beside me just as I was finishing my cup of tea. He was a little bit taller than me and was moving well. We exchanged pleasantries and asked each how we felt up to this point. His name was Steve and this was his first 100 like myself. The next leg of our journey involved taking a detour through Reading town center albeit for 0.5 miles so we agreed to buddy up until the next checkpoint. Although my legs were feeling the miles my stomach, mind and soul were doing great.
Having navigated the detour successfully the remaining miles of this 9 mile section were the toughest yet. Steve had commented how fast I was walking when we stopped jogging. I had always assumed that my walking was quite poor however that tends to be on the hills and yet my legs felt really good fast hiking on the flat. I knew from Bob earlier that this was key to a good solid time today. To help things over the next few miles I pulled out the dark chocolate coffee beans David had provided me in the office earlier that week. They are fabulous.
After navigating successfully through residential areas and back onto the towpath it wasn't long before the rain started falling. Although it was only drizzle I immediately put on my waterproof jacket to avoid being cold. Steve also grabbed his jacket and asked me if I could hold his bag while he put it on. "Jesus Christ" I said "what do you have in this bag?". It weighed perhaps 3-4 times heavier than mine and was amazed he was running it that heavy."Probably too much" Steve said which made me laugh.
As we neared the aid station Steve said he was going to sit down and get his shoes off as he felt blisters with particular focus on his right foot. I said that was good idea to nip it in the bud now otherwise it might compromise his race later and we had a long way to go yet.
I couldn't believe we were moving well and as we headed into the aid station again the amazing volunteers greeted us with smiling faces. I was told that I was one of the few runners still smiling as I entered the station which was nice to hear. I asked for a cup of tea, grabbed some more watermelon and a cheese wrap then sat down next to Steve who had removed his shoes. Wow there were indeed some big blisters! I assisted in helping him take care of a couple before I said "You better do it in case I wreck your feet and your race!". He laughed and said no problem.
After finishing my food I headed out the door and said to Steve I will march on. After drinking my tea I made my way back onto the route asking a marshal which way I was supposed heading towards. After being kindly directed I plodded on best I could.
CP9 - Streatley - 71 miles
The rain was still drizzly so I kept my jacket on regardless as the air temperature had dropped and I didn't want to feel cold. The next checkpoint was only 3.6 miles or so and a chance again to change my socks if required. The night time miles ticked by and it didn't feel like a long time before I got there. I grabbed my bag at the aid station which seemed awfully quiet then realised that it had gone 12.30am by then and that with the runners spread out there were going to be gaps in traffic.
I was asked and was grateful for the hot pasta with tomato / basil sauce which a volunteer offered me. It tasted pretty good and again helped lift the spirits. I changed my socks before standing up and grabbing a couple of ham / cheer wraps, some crisps and another cup of tea for the road. I must comment that the spreads are so good you should never miss a chance to eat at them!
Now the stretch to the next aid station is a bit of a blur but I do distinctly remember sharing a few miles with a guy called Alex. This is why I love running these type of events because you get to go places you wouldn't normally go, see things that are just so random (there was a boat earlier with loud speakers blurting out country and western music) and speak to some great people. Alex was telling me that he had done the Autumn 100 last year and knew this part of the route as there was overlap. Our chat's were not frequent but definitely helpful in making sure we kept moving forward. After some time had passed I wished Alex well as I slowed to a walk and he jogged on ahead.
Walking breaks are always useful to take stock of how the body is feeling and how fast I was moving. I knew that a sub 24hr finish was definitely on but anything could still go wrong at this point. It was a relief to see the Centurion flags as I tip-toed my way up to the aid station. I was asked if I needed anything and again asked for a cup of tea. One of the guys on the station had said that someone was lying down as they felt so awful. With that thought I didn't stay any longer and grabbed something to eat I think but cannot remember for sure what I ate! They warned me that there was a noisy pub preparing for the Boxing fight. I was preparing for a fight of my own with the last 20+ miles of the race ahead.
CP10 - Wallingford - 77.5 miles
Into the first couple miles of the next section I knew I needed another boost despite not feeling tired but the tiredness in my legs and feet was becoming harder to embrace. I stopped to think of the next tool in the arsenal to use. The thought came to me..time for music. I hooked up my earphones and I instantly recognised a song I love - Bon Jovi's Wanted Dead or Alive. I felt goosebumps radiate down my skin. It was time to move on and get this journey moving again. The rain was coming down but I loved it, I started thinking about everyone at home who would be tracking me, my wife and my kids faces smiling at the thought of Dad doing what he said he would do. I could hear the words come through and I sang them at the top of my voice without a care in the world. I was on my own but that's exactly where I wanted to be for the final 20 miles.
The time passed and although my jogs had pretty much come to a 1-2 minute effort now I was still overtaking runners as my fast walking was still eating up the ground. As I passed them I could see that they were alone with their thoughts and walking slowly. My good friend Allan Rumbles always warned me that the 100 mile race starts at the 80 mile point and it either breaks people or they pull something out they never knew they had. For me mile 80-85 was the hardest but also the most invigorating time of the day so far.
After getting onto the road again I entered Clifton in the pouring rain and I spotted a marshal with an umbrella who gave me directions to the aid station. I didn't hang around long again taking a cup of tea (as per usual) and walking out the door.
CP11 - Clifton Hampden - 85 miles
I worked my way back to the the kind marshal who warned me not to run down the slope to the path by the river. I laughed and said I would hang onto the rail and slide down if I had too :-) The pain in the legs, ankles and feet were on a level I had never experienced before but I embraced it. I had worked so god damn hard to be here and I was feeling such elation that no matter what happened I had taken so much already from this race. I think Frodo must have felt like this as he entered the final stretch of his mission to destroy the one ring to rule them all in the fires of Mount Doom. As the light of morning returned I was nearing Abingdon and I felt strong mentally despite a lot of hiking now and my legs just wouldn't work like they did before.
CP12 - Abingdon - 91 miles
After what felt like an age I reached the Abingdon aid station with my feet, lower back and ankles beaten up but felt very happy. I turned off my music and chatted to the volunteers for a minute or two saying that the last section had been hard work especially as it was very wet on the trails and grassy fields which in road shoes is not ideal. They said that it gets better from here and that with only 4 miles to Lower Radley the realization that this journey would soon end became very apparent. I could no longer raise my legs to jog but I could still walk strongly despite the painful feet so after getting my cup of hot tea I marched on.
I was beginning to consciously focus on the surroundings in an effort to remember and feel the moments I had left. Of course in no way did I want to DNF now but can see that with one false move you could get yourself in trouble.
CP13 - Radley - 95 miles
I reached Lower Radley knowing that this being the last aid station I wanted to spend as little time again here as possible. I hated thinking this because despite wanting to reach the end and achieve a goal I once thought beyond me the journey had been so special that I wanted to capture it for all time.
When at the checkpoint the team there were superb and I have to say had the best cake anywhere. For once I didn't have a cup of tea but I made sure I ate the cake. The guys reminded me that with only 5 miles to go breaking 24 hours was going to be a given but I could get near 22 hours if I really pushed it. With that thought I moved out as fast as I could with what must have looked funny as my legs were stiffening up. Then again at this point few people are running!
Those last 5 miles the trail was not the best to tackle in road shoes or any shoes to be honest packed with earth, stones, large broken twigs and more stones in places. I could still walk fine but with every step now my feet hurt. When I was back by the river side I could see people out for their morning rowing, runners skipping along (god how I wanted to do that) and others out on bikes. I said good morning to everyone that passed and managed to smile pretty much the whole time. I passed another runner who was not looking too good travelling very slowly. I asked him if he was ok and he said that he was fine but the legs were shot and that it was all about finishing now. He wished me well as I marched on. Those miles seemed to go on forever and pretty much every step was painful.
Just then I noticed on my left that there was field and there before me was the finish line! Sadness filled within me but I wanted to sit down now! I didn't want this to end but my feet and legs had other ideas and I broke into a jog with the biggest smile I could muster. This was it this was the finale. I could see Nici clapping, other people were clapping. I pumped my fists as I crossed the line.
"How did that feel?" Nici asked me. I couldn't believe it. It was over. It felt like a lifetime ago since I was standing on the start line. I tried to recall the moments I spent with other runners and volunteers during the race. How I felt when I clicked on the "congratulations you have a place via the waiting list" email back in January to enter the event and then entering the South Downs 50 to qualify.
The journey was over and how did I feel? I almost let out floods of tears and Nici could see it in my eyes how much this meant to me, I didn't know how to put all feelings into words and I am actually welling up just writing this. Nici gave me a hug and my sub 24 hour belt buckle before having a couple of finish line pictures.
I saw Rodrigo at the end and he hugged and congratulated me on a fantastic finish. I thanked him for telling me how I would smash it as that helped me during the race. I was taken to a seat in front of a heater and Rod sat down next to me looking very fresh and dry. Sitting in that seat the relief washed over me. I had finished in 22 hours 11 minutes and 8 seconds. I smashed 24 hours for my first 100 and I was so close to a sub 22.
|Looking fresh but tired|
I was offered a bowl of hot chilli which I devoured and of course washed down with a cup of hot tea. I rang my wife who was ecstatic that I had finished in that time and my eldest daughter Facetime me to have a chat. Nici came over and showed her the finishing board where it showed I had finishing in 46th place saying that she should be so proud of her Dad! Things just got better and better.
My friend Andy who was here to support me and drive me home arrived a few minutes later happy to see that I had finished in one piece although he did say he would have loved to see me cross the finish line. I said I don't think I can get up and walk over the finish line again! Bryan joined us only a few minutes later and then Bob came into the tent to congratulate me as well before leaving on his drive home! Sitting there among everyone the feeling hadn't sunk in but I was feeling amazing and as runners continued to finish we all clapped each and every runner who crossed the that line.
|My new best friend the following morning|
I had started the day in good company and I had finished it in even better company. I was so pleased that those last 5 miles were tough as I had to dig deep and find the courage to move forward. There were also many other moments of the race that captures the spirit of a 100 that we all embraced.
I can honestly say in responding to Nici's question that during that race I had a "glimpse of heaven" and a "taste of hell" and both were amazing.
|The prized belt buckle|
To the RD's, volunteers, Nici, friends, fellow racers, Andy, and all involved, my deepest thanks for helping me find the finish line. I can honestly say that I am a changed man, and learned so much on the way to getting that belt buckle. I don't care how nerdy it is to actually wear it (of course I have already). And although I don't think another 100 is on the cards this year it certainly will be next year.