Smiling through the Centurion Autumn 100m

Last Saturday I had the great pleasure of joining around 200+ ultra runners for the Centurion Autumn 100 mile race. The route is a series of 4 x 12.5 mile out and back sections along both the Thames Path and Ridgeway national trails. This was the final race in the Centurion series this year and due to the format of the race was looking forward to seeing for a change the front runners doing their thing (including Race Director James Elson) in near perfect race conditions.

X marks the spot

After the Thames Path 100 in May I had said that doing a single 100 miler in one year would be enough and so after spending time recovering from this and planning ahead I was going to focus on going for a autumn marathon PB attempt. However as fate would have it I received an email on September 2nd that a space had become available for the Centurion Autumn 100. Without hesitating I signed up. What possessed me to do this? To be honest I haven't a clue other than I felt that I needed to finish the 2015 racing season with a bang. Although I didn't feel in the same shape as I did earlier this year I felt more relaxed, confident and wanted to go through the emotional journey that comes with running a hundred miles.

We begin and finish the race in Goring, West Berkshire. It was the first race I had seen a Race Director run their own race and with the field featuring some great runners plus near perfect race conditions the anticipation was for a fast race and possible course record. James Elson RD gave us tips and suggestions during the race briefing while standing outside Race HQ before handing over to Nici and Drew who were in charge now. There was a healthy number of newbies who were running their first 100 mile race and given how they must be feeling I did envy them a little as life will never be quite the same again afterwards.

Anxious Start Line
Race strategy wise I was going to start out running very easy around 9.45 min/mile pace and then after a couple hours settle into a 9 mins run 1 min walk plan. On a relatively flat course this would work well and would try to maintain this as long as possible before adjusting the amount of running as the race progressed based on how I feel. I felt good as I arrived at the first aid station, paused for a few seconds to take a quick drink before moving on. I was running with Iain Bareham who was running his first 100 who commented that he was finding it a little difficult to hold back. I said you just want to get the half way point of the race feeling like you have hardly been running at all. If you feel like this then you have given yourself a great chance to get it done in the second half.

I had settled into the running by the time we hit the main road about a mile or so before the turnaround point on the section and could see the front runners heading back towards us offering encouragement to everyone. A few minutes later I myself was turning back running with Susie Chan who is always smiling and knows pretty much everyone on the course I think!

Life is good
On the way back to Goring I settled into my run / walk strategy and got talking to quite a few people including many peeps on Twitter who I didn't recognise on the day but realised who they were post race! I apologise again for that! By the time I got back to Goring I took the split at just under 4 hours. That was a little quicker than I anticipated but I felt really good and had been eating little and often at the aid stations. A quick refill of my bottle and I was off again.

I had been looking forward to running on the Ridgeway trail for sometime and although I didn't know the route the race markings made it easy not to get lost. I swiftly moved through the checkpoint and after traversing forest sections with some steep ascents and muddy fields the front runners were streaming and in some cases hurtling downhill towards us smiling and offering kind words. Gotta love it. I on the other hand was hiking the ascents and skipping downhill. Must try harder next time!

On approaching Swyncombe where the Leg 2 turnaround is I bumped into Sarah Sawyer who I ran for a bit with at the South Downs Way 50 miler earlier in the year who always brings a smile. She let me know that the check point was just a couple minutes away with some great goodies. Upon reaching the checkpoint I immediately went over to say hello to David Barkers wife Sarah and team who were supporting the runners here. I have worked with David for years and have met Sarah many times at races including three weeks before at the High Weald 50k. I said I had been looking forward to the home baked chocolate brownies here and of course I wasn't disappointed they were very good. After saying my good byes it was back down the hill to start the journey back to Goring oblivious to where I was place wise but still feeling good.

Heading back to Goring although my overall pace had dropped due to the walking up the hills I was still skipping the downhills with conviction. I passed Bryan Webster and Dan Park who were coming through the golf course who then asked "How long until the aid station?", I said that it was probably 15 minutes or so although I wasn't sure really as it's difficult to gauge the distance time wise, I'm sorry guys if I was wrong!

Usain Bolt would be proud
After enjoying the downhills and I stopped momentarily at the last checkpoint before Goring to refill my bottle and some food mostly bananas. The sun was setting and my energy levels were really good. Having glanced at my Garmin I could tell that I was on for a decent time for 50 miles. I had hope for around 9 hours at the halfway point pre-race and having done some quick calculation I was looking to be well under that time. Things can change quickly of course so I didn't push any harder. I seemed to be picking off a few other runners who had gone off rather quick to begin with and as the time seemed to flow quickly I felt like I was completely immersed in moving forward effortlessly. I have only experienced this two or three times before. The mind is clear and feeling of calm resonates throughout the body. This is where you want to be when running.

Just before the amazing sunset

Glorious sunset


 It started to get dark just before getting to Goring and although I didn't need my head torch yet I was concentrating on not kicking or falling over. I noticed on my way back to Goring that I was picking up a few very small stones in my shoes. It didnt take much to shake them out but could do without the stopping. This is a theme that continued throughout the race.
Runners settling in for the evening

As I saw the lights of Goring HQ I could see my friend Johnny waiting for me outside. He was going to be pacing me for Leg 3 and I had been looking forward to seeing him since we arranged this. He is an accomplished ultra runner in his own right having done the Grand Union Canal 145, MDS a couple times, several 100 milers and Spartathlon finish to boot. He is busy building up to tackle the Hardmoors 160 next year and with nothing better to do on a Saturday night he was more than happy to come down to pace me and also get the benefit of some night running in the bank.

I took a quick look at my Garmin after I checked in and had run the first 50 miles in 8 hours 37 mins. I was a little gobsmacked to be honest. That was a new PB by 20 mins and it was halfway through a 100 miler! Buoyed by this I asked for my drop bag and guzzled some chocolate milk and went about getting myself ready for the night time running. Allan Rumbles commented to me "Rich thats a bloody marvellous first 50 miles, impressive mate". After thanking Allan I grabbed a fresh top, headtorch, bottle refill etc.

So bad but so good
Johnny asked me "How you feeling mate? All good? I've brought you a Mc'Donalds". My face lit up and I laughed. We had talked about this before the race but I had completely forgot about it. So while other runners around me had a mixture of envious looks as well as disgusted faces I demolished a double cheeseburger and strawberry milkshake. I rarely eat this but it went down a treat. I didn't even think about what this might do to my stomach later but it felt good none the less. I must have spent 15 mins at the halfway point but felt ready to go out and run as strong as I could over the second half.

Leg 3 is also on the Ridgeway but it's completely different to Leg 2. Johnny and I were on the road for the first 30-40 minutes and it's a winding one up a very gradual incline (or at least it felt like it). I hiked for a fair bit of this interspersing with a jog for 5 minutes and time was ticking by quite quickly. The road then turned onto a gravel track and with the heard torches on full brightness things were really getting dark out here as it's pretty much away from the local towns.

Johnny and I talked for ages as I settled into a 4-5 mins run 1 min walk as the path flattened out talking about various things including what was on the racing schedule for next year and how badly Newcastle football team had been playing (I am a West Ham fan). After heading through a tunnel that you wouldn't probably want to run through during the day the Ridgeway headed up to Bury Downs. This section of the course is very exposed to the weather conditions and if it's blowing a gale or raining heavily up here it could make things very tough. Fortunately for us the weather had been very kind all day and that was set to continue, small things like this can make you feel so much better about the race.

A good few miles before reaching the next checkpoint I saw James Elson coming towards us with his pacer who was clearly in front now by some way now. He was smiling and said well done to us as he motored along down the hill. The course record must have been on I thought! A few runners had steadily passed us on the way back also including David who I work with all saying hello and offering words of encouragement. After reaching the next checkpoint I had a quick cup of tea and grazed on a few items of food before moving on, bananas seemed to be my most popular choice today.

The next checkpoint was 'only 4 miles away' up to Chain hill and it's at this point you turn around again and head back to Goring. The ground was rather cut up heading up the trail but I was still being successful in applying a 5 min run 1 min walk plan and still felt good. In fact I hadn't felt bad at all today come to think of it which did reinforce my positive attitude that I had. Johnny and I wondered what the surrounding area looked like during the day as its just countryside for miles around. Definitely a run in the future to be planned.

After reaching the checkpoint and having another cup of tea with again some small bits of banana we turned back to start our return to Goring. As we had been mostly going uphill and on the flat to this point I relished the return on the downhill section and had felt strong on the previous legs heading back to Goring. As we moved on I was walking less and running more to the effect that I was overtaking quite a few people despite the darkness. Johnny commented that he was impressed that we were moving strongly and overtaking people some of whom looked to be slowly walking and in some extreme cases swaying across the fields due to tiredness. That's a place you don't want to be at this early stage of the race.

On the way back we caught up with Ken Fancett who in my eyes is an ultra running role model. At 65 years old Ken has run 100's of marathons and ultras including many big US and European races with dozens of sub 24 hour finishes. We ran and chatted with him for a bit as he was moving well although he did say he had felt nauseous during this third leg. It was then I thought about the McDonalds I had ate earlier, thankfully I hadn't felt that way. Iron stomach? More lucky I guess.

A lot of runners were still coming towards us and you could see the headtorchs from quite a way out, such a cool sightt. Navigational wise we didn't get lost at all which is testament again to the great race markings but also I kept reminding myself to concentrate on whats in front of you at all times. Having gone back through the tunnel and made it onto the road Johnny and I were saying how quickly time had passed. We had chatted and laughed for a good few hours without really noticing the time. That's how I wanted to feel at this point of the race.

What you can discover running in strange places

As we descended into Goring I was still feeling good although of course at this stage of the race the overall pace is slowing compared to the first half. I checked in with at the aid station, 14:22 on the clock for 75 miles. Leg 3 had taken me 5 hours and 45 mins including of course my 15 min stop at the 50 mile point. I grabbed a quick refill of my water bottle and grazed again on some food, said my goodbyes and thank you to Johnny for pacing me and sharing the journey before heading back out the door for the final leg. I thoroughly recommend a pacer if you can and have a good friend do it. It's helps a lot psychologically. At least thats how I view it looking back on the race.

Now there had been a lot of discussion inside the Goring HQ that James Elson was nearing the finish and was well under the course record. With a bit of luck after just 2 minutes of leaving Goring again  e was coming towards me with his pacer looking relaxed and smiling again. Awesome stuff. I'm sure it was a very emotional finish for James in more ways than one. Well done to James! Now it was my turn to get the job done and enjoy the last leg as much as I could as it will be a long time before the chance comes to run a 100.

I had calculated that had plenty of time to beat my PB of 22:11 but you never know in a 100 what is going to happen no matter your preparation. The next section on the Thames Path includes what I call the evil forest section and the only hill you will find on this trail. I remember it well from the Thames Path 100 back in May and it can really break you if your not prepared for it. A nice steep hill to march up, a good few stairs up bridges over train lines, plenty of tree branches to take your head off and canals! I shiver at the thought of canals ha ha. It was during this section that I overtook a guy who was dressed as a teddy bear. Now I know what your thinking I was hallucinating blah blah blah but no he was dressed as a teddy bear and he is a good runner actually but he must have been suffering in that outfit today.

Just before getting to the aid station at Whitchurch I saw David again running towards me. He'd had an excellent race so far but said his foot was hurting him and with just under 4 miles to go still had a chance of a sub 16 hour finish! Incredible. He wasn't confident about that but having said good bye I know that he is not the type of person to miss an opportunity like this!  I reached the aid station and stayed for a minute to grab a tea, biscuit and banana of course as it was going to be 8.5 miles to Reading. Just as I got my tea the teddy bear came in through the door. He definitely didn't look like he had been to a teddy bear picnic. I'm sure he was fine but from the look on his face I knew he was in a dark cave. I wished him luck before leaving. This is what 100 milers do to you. Don't you just love it!

Having left the aid station I pulled out some dark chocolate coffee beans which I was hoping would perk me up heading into the final 20 miles and headed down through the churchyard over the bridge to Pangbourne. The run through the fields was a little spooky to say the least and with the path not being well defined in places it definitely can slow you down and although I still felt relatively good I knew this was impacting my speed through here. I could see ahead of me a solitary runner opening a gate and kept hearing it slam within a minute of getting there. This stretch seemed to take forever to the point that it was probably better to count how many fields I had crossed to ensure that I knew on the way back how far I had left to go.

I caught the runner ahead me not long after who was uncomfortably. I said hello and offered words of encouragement before moving on. Not long after that I saw Tom Sawyer coming the other way who said he wasn't feeling great and would be looking to walk it in. That's gutsy and many of us have been there. I applaud Tom for this as he did gut it out because he wanted to finish it and after that many miles you don't want to come back next year just to see what decision your going to make at the 90 mile mark. Only his pride was injured.

I popped out of the fields and was in Purley-on-Thames where the path leaves the river, diverting up a hill through a residential area before having you cross the railway line using a staircase to the river again. I didn't see any runners ahead of me but knew from my previous time here that you reach a paved path not far afterwards on the outskirts of Reading. This section seemed to drag like it did crossing the fields in Pangbourne but I was still feeling very alert and moving enough to be running and walking along the path albeit not as efficiently of course as before

Just before reaching the footbridge that climbs up and over Kennet and Avon canal I saw Sarah Sawyer again who was still moving well and smiling. Having seen her husband Tom marching just after Pangbourne I knew she was in with a good chance of catching him. Go Sarah! It wasn't long before I hit the Reading check point at 87.5 miles in 17:25. Sarah Barker was there again who said I looked fresh and smiling. She made me a cup of tea for me and again more chocolate brownie consumed. I said I felt pretty good although the fatigue in my legs was beginning to make running difficult. I said I had seen David on my travels and she responded that he had finished in 5th place in a cracking time of 15:58! Absolutely amazing and happy he got that sub 16.


Smile your on camera
Before leaving I sampled the gin cake (must have that again). Just as I was leaving some ladies who were sitting down asked me if I had seen the 'teddy bear' guy on my travels. I smiled and said I had and that he was fine albeit a little tired at the Whitchurch aid station. The look of relief on the ladies faces was evident. It turns out he won the High Weald 50k race I did 3 weeks ago. I said not to worry as I am sure he will pick himself up. After saying goodbye it was time for the final journey back to Goring.

A mile or so down the road from the checkpoint my Garmin Fenix 2 watch died. I wasn't fussed to be honest but annoyed that I hadn't turned off the non-essential functions for recording the race. There is always next time I guess. After reaching the staircase over the trainline my legs definitely were telling me enough is enough. My hip abductors were sore and could feel my right quad feeling a little more achey than normal. I could still power walk OK but running had become little more than a minute or so at a time. The battle and the race had begun! I bumped into a few other runners I knew on the way back including Dan Youds who I ran with at the South Downs 50 in April. He was going well and positive. Navigating back was straightforward and I came across several runners on their way to Reading through the residential area. I even saw a few guys using poles to climb the gradual ascent up the hill. I am not sure whether that seems sensible but each to their own I guess.

By the time I reached Whitchurch again I was mentally feeling strong but the body was definitely feeling the days effort now. A quick something to eat and I was out of there. No hanging around now I wanted to get this done. I was dreading the evil forest but as it was the last time I didn't feel overwhelmed by it. I had no sense off what time it was but knew that I must still be well under PB pace as it was still very dark outside. After crunching through the forest section and moving through a stream runners coming the other way through Pangbourne a solitary figure over took me. Low and behold it was my friend Rodrigo Freeman who was looking really sharp and moving really well. He said well done and said to come with him but I explained that my legs were a little shredded. I told him that I will see you at the finish. 

I was relaxed in knowing that new PB was on the cards and with little under a mile left in the race I was keen to get things done. It was then that I could sense someone was running fast behind me. Out of nowhere I saw a pacer come through with a runner who turned out to Paul Reader who apologised as he came hurtling through. No need to apologise I said you go sir! Fantastic effort. It was then that I saw the turning onto the road by Goring HQ but with nothing left in the legs I merely mustered jogging the last 60 meters into the finish. 

Everyone clapped me as I ran into the finish. It was only then I realised my friend Richard Quin who had arrived 10 minutes before to pick me up was standing there in front of me. He congratulated me and followed me into the final time through Goring HQ's door. 

Jon / Natasha Fielden congratulated me on my finish and told me I had finish in 39th place with a time of 20 hours and 40 minutes. A new PB by 91 minutes! I was chuffed. 


One happy man with a buckle
I received my sub 24 hour belt buckle and finishers t-shirt, quick finish photo before being offered some hot chilli and tea for breakfast. I sat there at the end and congratulated the other runners including Rodrigo who had completed the Grand Slam! Fantastic achievement. I still felt good in mind and chatted to Richard, Nadia who is Dan's Youds wife, Rodrigo and Ken Fancett who looked very jolly with a big cup of coffee or tea in his hand. I then decided it was time to go and got changed into some fresh warm clothes. It was mission accomplished.

Looking back on the race what surprised me the most was I achieved a big new PB but wasn't focused on this race until 4 weeks before hand. Although I  was on the waiting list I had forgot about it really and despite not specifically training for it like I did previously for Thames Path 100, on the day I managed dto focus on and pretty much held together. 

The mental aspect here is therefore very important even more so than the physical. There is no right way to train for a race of this distance but certainly having the experience of previous ones I think puts you into the mindset that the physical training cannot. With that thought in mind it's important to recharge therefore I have been rather enjoying the week off so far and have recovered so far without a problem. What lies ahead in 2016 I hear you say? Well in typical style I haven't signed up for any ultras as of yet. Let's see where fates leads me this time.

Big thanks to everyone at Centurion Racing, James Elson, Nici Griffin and the army of volunteers it takes to make this successful. I'm sure I will be back for more after three Centurion events this year and I recommend that all you runners out there go experience one.

Happy Running









2 comments:

  1. Looking far too happy for someone in the middle of a 100 miler in every single photo. Next time put some effort in!

    Just kidding of course! Well done!! Now what was that you said about Spartathlon? :)

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  2. Never mention the Greek race. It's a bit like mentioning the Scottish play around actors. It's time to rebuild and get ready for London but I have not forgotten that small race in Athens.

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