Written by Ash Hogg
Having been an active and reasonably sporty kid (soccer, hockey, tennis, squash, even a 10k fun run), like a lot of people I got lazy once into my adult working life. More and more time at the computer desk as the years passed by, and less exercise. You don’t really notice at first, still quite fit and slim in your 20s, maybe even 30s, but at the start of 2016 I found myself 43 years old and starting to pay for it. A couple of stone overweight, and definitely unfit.
My running journey didn’t even start with running. One week a bunch from work asked me along to 5-a-side football as they’d had someone drop out. I played for my school team as a kid so I used to be half decent, but on the night I was doubled over after about 20 seconds. Same thing a week later. I decided I needed to get a bit fitter first, and then rejoin those guys, or I was probably going to have a heart-attack on the field.
I’d heard parkrun being talked about a lot around that time, and found my local one was quite nearby, so that grey drizzly February Saturday morning I turned up to see what was up. Right from the start it was wet & muddy, although the attendance was a lot higher than I expected so there was a lovely welcoming atmosphere. However, memories of horrible old school cross-country runs started coming back! A short way round though, I realised there was no way I could go home clean, so I just stopped caring about the mud and huffed and puffed my way round. I also got to meet the tail runner that first morning, as I was dead last. It could have been disheartening, but of course it wasn’t. I took away a lot from that first parkrun. And after Googling a bit when I got home, I discovered that running on trails/dirt (as our parkrun was) is actually a proper thing that people do - of course, why wouldn’t it be? And so, I realised I was being drawn to trail running.
Over the next couple of years I built up fairly quickly, probably faster than many would advise. First 10K a few months later, first half marathon a few months after that. First marathons the following summer, and not easy ones - Trail Marathon Wales and Snowdonia Trail Marathon were my first choices, not some boring road marathon! Needless to say they were tough, but just spurred me on. I learned how much I love epic scenery and just being out there a long time.
And so, until 2020, I continued. Some more trail marathons. Then ultras. Couple of 50K, couple of 40-milers, 100km. And late 2020, my first 100-miler - having previously said there’s no way I’d even consider such a thing.
That’s how I came to start the Centurion Autumn 100 on 10 October 2020.
At the start of 2020, some weeks after booking the entry, I also did something else I always said I’d never consider. I realised that a 100-miler might need a little more than the slapdash approach to training (or lack of it) that I usually take. And so, I took on a coach - Neil Bryant, through Centurion Running’s coaching team. My hope was not to become an Olympian; rather, that Neil could work a bit of magic despite my constraints of not wanting to devote too much more time or mileage to training. In the months leading up to A100, I did my best to follow his plan, which true to his word did not put too much extra burden on my weekly schedule; at the same time, I could definitely see and feel improvements in my running.
Another first was that I even rustled up a spreadsheet with an estimate of my times, which I obviously had to extrapolate based on prior experiences like Race to the Stones. I have always been a relatively slow runner, and early races did involve a lot of worry about beating cutoff times. This is less of an issue for me now, and with a 28-hour cutoff for A100 my spreadsheet allowed what I felt was a fair amount of overhead as I simply wanted to finish - the projection was for 26h50m.
So, how did this all work out on the day?
Leading into race weekend, I had had a couple of weeks of particularly poor quality sleep. Luckily, on the Thursday night, although I awoke very early as usual I also felt like I had slept very solidly. On the Friday night, I was again awake very early with anticipation, but the sleep I did get also seemed to be very solid. So I actually turned up at the start line feeling pretty good; often on race day I feel tired at the start but pick up once the adrenaline gets going. This was a good starting point for me, as I felt generally very good all the way to the end of the race. No problems at all with general tiredness or sleep deprivation during the night sections.
A100 comprises 4 out-and-back sections from Goring & Streatley, along each direction of both the Thames Path and the Ridgeway. Terrain is mixed, a fair amount is relatively flat and easy going (if the weather is reasonable) and there are a few hillier parts here and there too.
With the Covid protocols in place for this race, and the staggered start window, I rolled up to the start line just after 7:30am and got going after a temperature check. I just felt surprisingly calm, as if I simply wanted to enjoy the day and the experience - especially since I felt we were very privileged to even have a race at all, given the events of 2020.
On the first leg, I was trying to be careful to not go out too hot. But I had a rough plan to run the first 12.5 miles to the turnaround point of leg 1, then do the return with a pattern of 9 minutes running and 1 minute walking. This still got me back in 4h30m, very close to my recent marathon PB time recce’ing the spurs. But I felt very comfortable. My plan was then to mostly keep to 8 minutes run, 2 minutes walk for most of leg 2. Again, I was feeling strong here. I love the Grims Ditch section, especially the flowing single-track parts. On the return leg, I found I was easily running it all, ups and downs. They’re hardly alpine ascents, but on previous races I’ve often been unable to run up *any* incline after about 20 miles, so I knew things were good here when I could just go with the flow and enjoy the single-track, without worrying about stop-start on the little up bits.
Although it would be shorter than my original 26h50 projection, I had also roughly planned a 5-6-7-8 (hour) progression through the legs as a guide, and with the time spent on the Goring checkpoint stops that was very close after the first 2 legs - I think I left to go on leg 3 at a minute or 2 past the 11 hour mark. That was my longest CP stop, because I changed more clothes there (shorts to leggings, new base layer & top so that I wasn’t starting out in damp sweaty ones which might suffer more in the cold). At every Goring CP I changed socks and cleaned my feet, reapplying Lanacane. A strategy of regularly tending to my feet served me very well on Race to the Stones and I’m sticking to it. I run in Altra shoes and Injinji socks, and combined with Lanacane I rarely get any problems. I didn’t get any feet issues until the last 2-3 miles of the race when I could feel a hotspot developing on my left sole, but at that late stage it wasn’t going to pose a problem before the race end. Otherwise, I think I kept good CP discipline. I spent only as long as I needed to get the food & fluids refreshed, and never sat down anywhere except Goring when I sorted my feet out.
I was prepared for leg 3 to be the bleakest, but I was still feeling quite strong and mentally very positive and happy - I’d really been enjoying the day so far, helped by the generally good weather & conditions as well as the fact I was feeling strong and apparently doing well. I was eating as I left Goring so ended up walking quite a bit at this point, certainly for a good few miles going up that long rocky incline. In the end, there was a lot more walking than running on leg 3. I got some running in, but the rains had made a lot of it very sticky underfoot. My shoes were doing an adequate job with traction at best, but I realised it was just going to feel more energy-efficient to walk at a decent pace than try to run and be slipping around a lot more. I wasn’t the only one doing this out there, it was quite a popular choice! I walked and chatted for a fair few miles with a very amiable lady, Eileen Naughton, who proved how small the world can be - her pacer at the Thames Path 100 earlier in the year would be my very own pacer a few miles later when I got back to Goring at the 75-mile mark! I love this about ultra-running; just meeting random people who turn out to be great company and make the tougher sections entirely bearable.
Again, weather was kind to us - it wasn’t actually that cold or windy up there on that higher exposed part of the Ridgeway, so compared to stories of previous years we had it very good. I took about 7.5 hours on this leg, more than my 5-6-7-8 plan but not terrible. And it didn’t feel like a slog either. I took my time, kept moving well and safely, and still felt mentally very positive. I did take advantage of the long incline turning into a long slow descent on the return, and made up some good time there. I was also pleased that this section is pretty rocky and uneven and a bit hard on the feet, but my legs felt strong and in control enough that I could descend well and safely.
Leg 4 was quite the experience. Collecting my pacer, Melissa Venables (ladies’ winner at the North Downs Way 100 a few months earlier - we couldn’t be further apart on the running scale!), we walked for a little while as I was eating after making a quick CP stop for a sock change. I could also feel things really starting to hurt more by this point. But we started getting into some slow running sections, making some decent progress before I felt like my muscles were red hot and I needed a bit more walking. Through this whole leg Mel wasn’t too pushy, but she did really try to encourage me to run, jog or trot whenever I could. Mentally, I was still really happy and feeling good - but increasingly I was struggling to get the legs to start turning over. Mel did give me space when I needed it but did keep encouraging. And I did my best to jog whenever I could. Early in this leg, I had looked at my watch and realised that sub-26h might just be possible if I could run enough of it. So that was a goal that we started heading toward.
At Reading aid station, I had my ‘fuzzy ultra brain’ moment when we left the building and I said I couldn’t find my gloves. I remembered taking them off and tucking them under my arms when sanitizing on the way into the CP. Mel told me to start off on the return while she went back in to look. Obviously, 10 seconds later I realised I had them all along (but in a different pocket than I normally put them in) so I tried shouting up to the open windows of the CP. They got the message but Mel was already on the way out and down the slope to meet me. She had told them inside that I probably had them, and of course she was right!
On the final return leg I really wanted to run a bit more than I did, although we did get some good miles in at around 13 min/mile pace which was about all I could manage. Mentally I was still positive, but I was just feeling it on the physical side. Overall though, at the start of this return leg it was looking like I hadn’t moved quickly enough to go sub-26h, but I was okay with that - it was always going to be tight, and I knew at this point that I would finish and it would be maybe mid-26h, and I was still going to be very happy with that as my first 100 result. Despite a bit of extended walking for a few miles into and out of Pangbourne, I did manage to get running again a few more times once we’d got past Whitchurch. The morning sun was really nice by this point and it was adding to the positive experience. Approaching Goring, I realised we’d made up some more time and I might be looking at a time more like 26:15 than 26:30 or more. But we were closer to home than I realised, and had been moving well enough as we got closer, and as we hit the town itself we were only a couple of minutes shy of 26h. I knew that I wouldn’t get sub-26, but it was only going to be a little over.
Rather than be upset at those extra 2m36s, I’m really happy - my primary goal was just to finish the race, and I still came in a fair bit under my original spreadsheet estimate. My gut ‘on the day’ aim of 5-6-7-8 (for a total of 26h) was surprisingly close, in the end.
The finish line was an odd experience for me. Obviously I was super happy to have finished, and with what I consider to be a good time for me, but I am also surprised at how calm I felt. I’ve finished some previous big races feeling very drained and emotional, yet this one was my biggest race by far and I just didn’t feel this. Tired, yes, but not drained or on the verge of tears. It actually felt like I had finished it with some degree of being in control, for once.
I had some of the hot food and a cup of tea, but at this point, as well as in the hours after, I didn’t feel nearly as ravenous as I have done in previous events. So perhaps my fuelling during the race had been solid.
My first ever 100-mile buckle, and my ace pacer Melissa Venables
As expected, I felt physically very sore for a couple of days right after the race. I absolutely seized up on Sunday afternoon and could also barely move on Monday. But after that, recovery was relatively good, improving significantly each day. The worst effect was a very sore and tender ankle/shin, which flared up during the last few miles of the race but didn’t affect me much at the time. In the few days after though, the whole area was swollen and very painful to the touch.
Final Thoughts & Thanks
Looking back, I simply can’t believe what a great race I had. Weather & conditions were relatively great, I think I got my pacing fairly good, I ate and drank well (the latter is something I’m usually not great at, so I really consciously focussed on this), and my checkpoint discipline was really good. My foot regime, which has served me very well in other races, continued to work great - no blisters or other problems. I had a sports massage a few days after the race and my therapist (herself a runner/triathlete) couldn’t believe the good condition of my feet.
I had zero stomach problems during the race either. I had brought a fair amount of food in my drop bag but ended up leaving quite a lot of it. I did eat my ham sandwiches, and several of the Chia Charge bars, but beyond that I was happy with the aid station food. I usually use my own Tailwind during a race but would ease back on it after 40 miles or so. I started the race with a flask of my own (at a good strength) but ended up refuelling each time with a full flask of the aid station Tailwind (which is weaker than I would mix myself) and half a flask of plain water. Later in the race I just got cravings for Coke so would fill a full flask of plain water and a half flask of Coke. A couple of hot drinks here and there, but otherwise I just kept taking on little amounts frequently, with no problems at all.
There is also no question that I could easily have come in sub-26h, with a tiny bit of extra effort here and there, and had a couple of very minor faff moments been eliminated. But you could always argue this of any race, I think. And it’s easy with hindsight to think “if only”, but I do think I gave my best at the time. A few days later it’s not always easy to remember just how painful everything was at that moment! Mel & I had quite a few discussions on that last leg, and whilst she’s an out-and-out racer, I am not - and one of my worries was getting almost to the end of the race but overdoing it just once and pulling a muscle, or something else. Never having gone this far, and put in so much effort on the day, I was definitely a little conservative and wanted to ensure 100% that I finished.
Huge thanks go to Neil Bryant for his coaching in the months before, and still now. He listened to me and gave me good structure that fitted my work, life and wishes, even though that meant not a lot more extra time or mileage. I really appreciate that, and I also value slow and sustainable improvement, and working with Neil has definitely given me this - and continues to do so.
Also big thanks to Mel - I originally did not want a pacer at all, as I had no clue if I’d even make it to the 75-mile mark (or at what time) and didn’t want to inconvenience anyone. But accepting her offer to pace was definitely the right choice. Being the calibre of runner that she is, I learned a lot from her, and she undoubtedly got more out of me than I would have done if left to my own devices.
Now that I know I absolutely have it in me, I feel like I can really build on this wonderful experience. I’m now wondering how close to 25h I can get on Centurion’s Thames Path 100 in May 2021, and am also booked in for a repeat attempt on A100 in October 2021. It might be a stretch to aim to knock 2 hours off in the space of a year but if I don’t aim for one of those sub-24h buckles, I’d regret it, surely?! :)
Written by Debra Bourne - https://runningape.wordpress.com/
The 2020 edition of Centurion’s Autumn 100 was a very special race for me: 23 hours and 8 minutes of special. All my training over the past year paid off with my first sub-24-hour 100 mile race, earning me my first ‘100 miles – one day’ buckle.
In normal years this is the fourth and final race in the Centurion 100-mile Grand Slam (although this year the South Downs Way 100 is still to come). While the other three races – Thames Path 100, SDW 100 and North Downs Way 100 – are point-to-point along their respective National Trails, the A100 is a series of four 25-mile out-and-backs from Goring in Oxfordshire, with the first and fourth legs being on the Thames Path, while legs two and three use the Ridgeway.
[Running trace for the A100]
The format means that runners can access their drop bags at 25, 50 and 75 miles. James Elson (the Race Director) in the briefing video had asked us to keep these as small as possible, and certainly no more than 50 litres, but that had to be balanced against bringing food I knew I would eat, plus some I might want, changes of footwear and adequate clothing options. I knew I probably wouldn’t use all the clobber I took (although I did eat most of the food), but it was good to have the choice.
As with CW50, we drove most of the way on Friday evening, staying overnight at the Travelodge in the M4 (this time without road closure worries). In the morning we were on our way by 6.30, after a bit of a wait for the windscreen to clear after a cold night. We arrived in Goring and I made use of the carpark toilets, avoiding any queue at race HQ or the Streatley start, then my husband Aidan carried my bag most of the way to the village hall before leaving me, with a kiss, as we had been requested not to bring anyone with us. I dropped off the drop bag, said hi to Nici, picked up and attached my tracker, then set off walking down the road to Streatley, setting my Garmin to ‘run’ and loading Leg 1 in as a course. I was using four courses, one for each leg, after discovering the miserly 50-waypoint limit on the Garmin 935. Many thanks to Chris Mills for chopping the course up for me after James posted the final version of the GPX. After the problems I’d had during NDW100 with the watch stopping recording the run when I hooked it up an external power source, this time I started off with the charger attached.
My coach, Neil Bryant, had suggested I run easy on the first leg and practice my eating and drinking breaks, get into a rhythm. About half a mile in there was a narrow humpbacked bridge, where we had to mask up and cross one at a time, guided by a lovely and very polite volunteer. I felt cold walking to the start at Streatley and for the first 5 or 10 minutes of running, but soon warmed up. From then on I used hat and gloves on and off to regulate temperature. It would have been easy to run faster than was sensible, given the flat route, and decent underfoot conditions. I didn’t stop at Wallingford, just said hi and got a great greeting from Anna Troup. Then onwards to the turn-around point at Little Wittenham, where I filled water bottles and took a satsuma and piece of banana. Keep on running, walking to eat and drink, getting practiced at juggling food and the powerbank which I was carrying in my left hand. Back through Wallingford, again without stopping, but Anna was very encouraging at a point where I was feeling quite low – I felt like I’d been pacing sensibly based on perceived effort, despite which my legs felt tired, which I hadn’t expected only about 20 miles into the race on flat terrain. Anna reminded me to enjoy the run!
[Along by the Thames]
The best aspect was the out-and-back nature of the course, which meant that I got to see all the other runners, the faster ones returning while I was still heading out, and the slower ones heading out while I was on the return journey. Some nice wildlife moments – watching swans take off from the river, and seeing Red Kites soaring overhead. It was great to see familiar faces such as Gareth Allen, Ollie Dawson and Rob Cowlin, as well as a load of others who are becoming familiar on the Centurion races. I did find the route a little boring, without the variety of a route such as the North Downs, but it was pleasant running and pleasant enough surroundings. After about 20 miles my laces started to press into the tendons on the tops of my feet. I stopped once and loosened them, but they started to hurt again in the last mile or so – it was definitely time to change shoes.
Back at Goring I experienced the fantastic Centurion organisation, with my drop bag pulled out and placed on a chair (those were at 2m distance from one another) while I sanitised my hands and filled my water bottles. I reported a lost glove – one of my really nice Inov8 ones, that had been a present – and hoped someone else would bring it in (although I did have a spare pair in my backpack). I sat down, changed shoes as fast as possible, and swapped my depleted bags of food (mixed vegan sweets, raisin-cranberry mix, salted snack pretzel sticks and boiled salted new potatoes) for full bags. I also took one of my hot cross buns to eat and a satsuma. Nothing else needed so I sanitised my hands – holding the bun and satsuma in a piece of kitchen towel kindly provided by a volunteer – and left, loading the course for leg 2 as I set off.
[Woodland path along the Ridgeway]
Leg 2 heads along the Ridgeway north then eastwards to Swyncombe and back. Initially the path lay alongside the river, on the opposite bank to the Thames Path, so the terrain was, not surprisingly, similar to that of the first leg. Past South Stoke on the little diversion off the Ridgeway that James had warned about, and into North Stoke, not really needing the aid station. Then over a road and into Grim’s Ditch. Here a volunteer in orange high-viz jacket warned us that the path was narrow and we should take extra care and give way to others. I rather enjoyed this section, roots and all; it was interesting to run it west to east for a change. I was meeting returning faster runners sooner this time and could only marvel at their speed as I stepped aside to let them pass. Another opportunity to say hi to people I knew as well. Gareth Allen seemed to be doing pretty well and looked much happier than when I’d seen him during NDW100.
[Heading into Grim’s Ditch]
Onwards, up and over some rolling hills. A large field, then another, dipping down then climbing up again towards woodland. At the far side I spotted Stuart March and stopped gazing at red kites for a few seconds while my photo was taken and we exchanged greetings, before I disappeared on the path through the trees. Onwards. Up the lane (I recognised this bit from going wrong on my CW50 recce) past St Botolph’s Church and into the aid station. Reach into my pocket for my mask… no mask. I realised I must have dropped it, so pulled a buff on instead. Sanitise, fill waters, take a bit of fruit, sanitise, thank the volunteers and head off back down the lane. By now some light showers had started, but they were not enough bother for me to put my coat on. Through the woodland, which anyway gave shelter from the rain. As I emerged and drew breath to say hi to Stuart as I passed, I spotted my face mask, which another runner had carefully placed on a gate post for me, and happily retrieved it.
[Across the fields]
Across the two fields, running the inclines as well as the downhills because it had started raining again and I wanted to get back under sheltering trees. Another orange-coated volunteer as we plunged back down Grim’s Ditch, then over the lane and through North Stoke again before following the diversion to South Stoke, then back down the river. I passed Rob Cowlin again somewhere along here and worried as he was in road shoes and struggling on ground that was getting more slippery. The rain started again. Grey clouds stretching to the horizon suggested that this would be more than a shower, so I sheltered under a tree, dug my waterproof coat out of the backpack and donned it. Right decision, as the rain accompanied us all the way back to Goring. I was running mostly by myself, but there were a number of runners that I played ‘leapfrog’ with for shorter or longer periods throughout the race, depending on our personal running speeds, walking breaks, times spent at checkpoints and so on. Some I had met during other Centurion races, but with the minimal interactions under COVID-19 restrictions I was finding it hard to pin names and faces together.
Back down the alley, mask on and into the hall – where, to my delight, my glove was waiting for me! Fantastic. I had planned to change socks at this point but given the worsening weather I didn’t see the point – the ones I was wearing were not rubbing or anything and whatever I was wearing would get wet and muddy in the next hours, so it would be better to keep these on and change for a hopefully dry leg 4. Now stationary as I replenished my food supplies, I was starting to feel cold. It would get dark sometime during leg 3 and the temperature was likely to fall. What to wear? I pulled a long-sleeved running shirt on over the NDW50 shirt with my number pinned to it (I considered swapping the shirt, but then I would have needed to move the number), and pulled my waterproof trousers on as well as the jacket. They would protect me from windchill and from worry of getting soaked and cold if the rain got heavier, while leaving my long running tights dry in case I needed them for leg 4. With 50 miles done, I felt confident that my watch battery would last the rest of the time, so I left the charger and lead.
Out of the hall and off up the road, heading west on the Ridgeway. It felt strange to be running this section in the light, unlike either of my Ridgeway 86 runs. In a little while the rain eased and I was soon overheating, so I stopped for long enough to take the waterproof trousers off. A couple more miles and I was getting too hot again so took the jacket off – but before I could tie it round my waist the rain returned, so I put it back on – this time to stay on. This section was mainly wide chalk and flint paths, not too slippery yet, although I worried that might change with the rain. I was very aware on every down slope that I would meet it again as an incline later, but cheered myself on the uphills by thinking about returning down them. East Isley Downs was a lovely oasis of cheer, with little chemical lights edging the paths in and out, and volunteers making sure that people left in the correct direction outwards or inwards. I should have stopped there long enough to get my head torches out, but didn’t, because I wanted to clear the way for incoming runners.
As the light faded, and with the rain having paused, I get a couple of nice sunset pictures.
[Sunset on the Ridgeway]
[Sunset on the Ridgeway]
Onwards, running where I could, walking when the footing seemed too treacherous or I was hunting for the best rut or ridge to run along. The last stretch before the turn-around point I bumped into Ollie Dawson and we ran together for a bit. He reassured me that I was well in time for my sub-24 goal. Finally into the aid station, buff on as I couldn’t find my face mask (again), fill water bottles, take a banana and set off again, taking cheer from the thought that the wind would now be behind me rather than into my face, and the muddiest section was first, so I could look forward to better footing later. Ollie had stopped to drink some coffee, which he said would help his upset stomach.
The rain had cleared and at one point I glanced up then stopped, turned out the headtorch and simply stood for a few seconds gazing at the wonderfully bright stars with no city light clutter to dim them. Back through East Isley Down aid station, then continuing back to Goring. I alternated running and walking, depending on the terrain and on how hot I was feeling, slowing when necessary to cool down. I felt I could probably run more and faster if I took a layer off, but I calculated that in the time it would take me to peel something off and stow it I would get too cold, so I just pushed my sleeves up my arms. At about 11pm, feeling a bit sleepy, I took a caffeine tablet and a little while later felt more alert. I didn’t spot Rob Cowlin on this section and realised he must have dropped, sadly. I was alone for long stretches, which I don’t mind, with other torches periodically approaching and passing, and sometimes seeing other patches of light down the trail and moving in the same direction as me, visible then hidden, depending on curves in the path. There was one very surreal moment when for a few seconds I saw what looked like balloons or something caught up in a tree ahead – then I realised it was a steep section of path and my torch was reflecting from a runner ahead of and above me.
At Goring, final replenishment of food from my drop bag and final hot-cross bun to eat, as well as changing headtorch batteries – the one in the main torch was still fine, but it made more sense to change it than not. I didn’t feel any need for hot food, so didn’t bother making up the instant noodles I’d brought. It was set to be a clear night and cold, according to the volunteers. I deposited the waterproof trousers into my drop bag and set off again. I was well prepared in case it was much colder by the river: I had a lightweight windproof and my arm warmers, in case I felt the need for another layer on my top half, and light Montane windproof trousers in case the legs got too cold, as well as thicker gloves, a beanie and a buff in the backpack. In the end I used none of these. Leg 4 set on the watch, plus other runners going the same way, supplemented the Centurion markings – not that the Centurion markings were lacking, just that I was tired.
Down to the river, along a little way. I spotted something on the path and stopped. It was a buff, evidently recently dropped, as it hadn’t been trampled, and almost certainly from an A100 runner, so I picked it up and stuffed it into the back of one of the vest pockets. Along a bit further then uphill and a section through undulating woodland, which I really hadn’t expected. However, that, for me, was the highlight of the section. The remainder was almost dead flat and most of it was rather dull. Despite Ollie telling me I had plenty of time for sub-24 I was worried about not making it. My legs were not really stiff or sore, but keeping them running, rather than walking, was getting more and more difficult. I started setting myself goals: 100 running strides with each leg then I could walk for 50 strides. Repeat. If I didn’t reach the 100, then I tried to make the following walking break shorter. As an added complication, my guts started telling me that a visit to the toilet would be a good idea. This ‘suggestion’ became more insistent and I had to walk, along a road, through a churchyard. I was NOT going to squat in a churchyard. By now I had lost track of whereabouts the intermediate aid stations would be, so when I spotted a lit-up building with people moving about inside it didn’t immediately occur to me that this was the checkpoint. I I had already decided to knock on the door and hope someone (a) answered and (b) let me use a toilet when I saw the Centurion arrows directing me there and realised with relief that this was the aid station. I shuffled to the door: ‘please tell me there’s a toilet!” ‘Yes’ came the welcome reply. It was up the stairs. That was okay, I could manage that. I fished in my pocket, couldn’t find my mask, so took a single-use mask from the pack by the door, sanitised my hands and hurried upstairs. Soon, somewhat relieved (pun intended!), I took a bit of banana from the aid tables, thanked all the volunteers and continued.
Across a couple of fields, past some dark cattle, their eyes brightly reflecting my headtorch, along by the river. Through a bit of woodland then suddenly, it seemed, into a built-up area, up a road, going a little past a junction but slowing and checking and turning back, my watch buzzing at me just as a couple of other runners whistled to alert me that I had missed the turning. A bit further along roads. I was sure I had already gone about eight miles, and Ollie had warned me that the checkpoint was six miles after the ‘Welcome to Reading’ sign. Where was that sign? After what seemed an age, I spotted it. Another six miles out. My heart sank. Nothing to be done except keep moving. Walk, run, walk, run. I was too warm when I ran, too cold once I dropped to a walk, so I seemed to be constantly taking my gloves off and putting them on again as well as pushing my sleeves up and pulling them down. I thought of removing a layer but was worried that I would get too chilled if I did. One interesting bit where I passed a huge gathering of roosting swans and geese, and a couple of lit-up bridges, but otherwise, being dark, not a lot of interest. About 2.30 or 3 am I took another caffeine tablet.
By this time I had ‘ultramarathon brain’ sufficiently that I couldn’t manage the calculations for how much longer it would be to the turn-around point, nor how much longer I had if I was to finish under 24 hours. A couple of times other runners passed me and I tried to tag on behind them, but always broke into a walk after 100 paces or so. I asked a returning runner how far… ‘about another mile or two’. Surely not? It was indeed nearly a further two miles. I spent a good mile expecting to see it round every corner, but finally, finally there it was!
Water, a banana (I think) and off again, definitely happier to be heading back. So much of running ultras is a mental game. I had been depressed by the elusive Reading checkpoint, but now I could tell myself there were only 12 and a half miles to go, and surely I could make that sub-24.
Despite feeling mentally better I still couldn’t maintain a run, so I went on run-walking and reminding myself to eat and drink. Back past the roosting waterfowl, back past the bridges. When the leg 4 trace said that I had about 8 miles to go, I dug my phone out and called my wonderful husband. ‘I’ve got somewhere between two and two and a half hours to go. Probably two and a half’. ‘Okay, I’ll send you a text when I reach the car park.’ Onward, back onto the road section, past the cows, Pangbourne Meadow, always giving a ‘well done’ to runners still on that outward leg. Another brief stop at the part-way checkpoint. Now less than 4 miles to go! My stomach was feeling a bit uncomfortable, but much less so than on NDW100, and I could still run in short but frequent bursts, walking at a good pace in between.
Up the road, striding into the incline, looking forward to the trail through the woods and the descent on the other side. I stepped aside for some runners who were catching me up, but they soon slowed and I caught them again. The front runner was pacing one of the others, aiming to get him finished in sub-24, and the other guy had the same aim. I said I was also trying for that. ‘Come on, girl!’ the pacer called, so I joined them, and after a few minutes found that I was generally managing to keep up with the pacer better than the other runners were doing, although none of the three of us could keep running for long before dropping back to a walk. Finally we were down back by the river. Nearly there now. A couple more turns, then onto the road. A final effort, running alongside the wall encircling the green, then over the timing mat. Finished! I pressed the button on my Garmin and walked down the alley, pulling my buff over my face, towards the Garden Room.
I knew that I had come in under 24 hours, but not how much under until I looked at my watch (and discovered it still running, so I pressed stop more firmly!) – it said 23:08. No way! What a fantastic result for my 90th ultra! I had to wait a little until this could be verified from the Centurion system, before I was allowed to pick up one of the coveted ‘100 miles – one day’ buckles and pose, grinning, for my finish line photos. I was given my T-shirt and offered tea and chilli. Veggie chili was available, and I felt bad for refusing it, but I didn’t think it was wise on an unhappy stomach.
My phone chimed, but when I looked I didn’t seem to have a text, so I accepted the offer of a tea and a sit down inside the hall. Various runners were draped over the carefully spaced chairs. I accepted my drop bag for the last time, and placed the shirt and buckle into it so I couldn’t lose them. A few minutes of chat with Nici and volunteers, then just as someone presented me with my tea I saw the text from Aidan and replied. A couple more minutes and some sips of tea, then I levered myself out of the chair, hauled my drop bag onto my shoulder, thanked everyone one last time and headed out.
[Finished! Earned my first “100 miles – One Day buckle”]
Afterword & thanks
It has been ten months since I contacted Centurion Coaching and Neil Bryant started setting my running schedule, making my training more focused. Having spent the past three years running lots of marathons and ultras, and qualifying for the 100 Marathon Club, I had wanted to see if I could get faster. My stated goals had been a marathon under 3:40 (maybe even under 3:30), Comrades under 10 hours and a 100-miler at sub-24 hours. The COVID-19 outbreak meant no Comrades, and with most of my other ultras postponed and squeezed into the last 5 months of the year, no way of fitting in an attempt at a fast marathon. That left the sub-24 goal. Massive PBs at 5K and 10K over the summer in virtual challenges (including the England Athletics 5K virtual championships) had shown that my training was improving my speed at those shorter distances, but I wasn’t sure how this would translate into ultra-distance performance.
I had coped better than most with the heat during NDW100, as shown by my 4th woman, 1st FV50, 22nd overall placing, which had been fantastic, but I hadn’t gone under 24 hours – although I tried to remind myself that only 17 runners HAD gone sub-24 in the race. This time my placing wasn’t quite as good – 1st FV50 again, but 6th woman and 77th overall, but I was delighted with my finish time of 23:08:38 – which set a new FV50 record for the course by more than 27 minutes.
Now I have beaten the 24 hours once, I know I can do it again and I’m sure I will. Lots to learn still, as it was mental/neurological fatigue rather than tired muscles that slowed me down in the last 25 miles, and I need to improve my nutrition to keep my stomach happier.
I have lots of people to thank. First, my wonderful husband for his support throughout my training, as well as getting up at 5am two mornings in a row to drop me off and pick me up again, and walking back to the village hall with the tracker when I realised, sitting in the car park, that it was still on my backpack.
Many thanks of course to James, Nici and the whole of the Centurion crew. It takes a huge amount of work behind the scenes plus the efforts of dozens of volunteers for a race like this to go ahead, and the organisation was spot-on. Thank you to Anna Troup, for reminding me to enjoy the race, thank you to the other runners who returned my glove and left my mask on the post, thanks to all the runners and volunteers who gave me encouragement during the race. The sense of community in ultrarunning is wonderful.
Special thanks to Neil Bryant, whose coaching has led me to find an extra gear and reach this goal. I also owe thanks to Chris Morton from my club, Striders of Croydon, whose speed sessions over the last year, and encouragement with the 5K and 10K virtual races, have really helped me to push harder and get more out of my speed work.
Written by Debra Bourne - http://runningape.wordpress.
I spent 2018 and 2019 running lots of marathons and ultras (mostly ultras) to finish qualifying for the 100 Marathon Club, which I achieved at the end of November 2019. I decided that my next goal would be to run ultras faster, with specific aims for 2020 of a marathon PB (getting my time down to 3:40 or even 3:30); a sub-10-hour Comrades Marathon (iconic 56-mile hilly road ultra in South Africa) and sub-24h-hour at a 100-miler.
In summer 2019 I started attending my club’s speed sessions occasionally, and from November regularly, as well as starting strength training twice a week. Beginning in December I invested in online coaching, choosing Centurion coaching as I thought that, as they surely coached people who were aiming for the Centurion Grand Slam (four 100-mile races during the year), they would be better able than most to cope with my multiple race goals. My coach, Neil Bryant, had been setting me to doing more speed work and runs such as tempo runs and progression runs (increasing speed gradually during the run), as well as making sure that my easy runs really were at an easy pace that wouldn’t impact on the harder sessions, and encouraging me to cross-train at least once a week.
With the whole COVID-19 situation, races were postponed or cancelled right, left and centre. Comrades didn’t happen. Other races such as NDW50 and Wendover Woods Night 50K were postponed. Although I ran a number of 50K virtual events in the course of training, I was running them as training runs, on tired legs. Running 5-mile, 5K and 10K virtual races organised by Chris Morton from my running club, I had some proof that my speed at those distances had improved – I reduced my 5K to 21:20 (from my previous best of 22:24 set in 2012) and my 10K to 44:26 (from 45:30, also set in 2012). However, NDW100 would be my first chance to see how the training had impacted the ultras that were my real goal.
The NDW100 2020 edition was one of the first races to be held in the UK in an in-person rather than virtual format since the COVID-19 lockdown started in April. We were all pleased it was going ahead. Various adaptations had been needed to allow the race to happen, including a couple of course diversions – although James Elson assured us those would not affect the overall distance (103 miles). Gathering for the race briefing evidently wasn’t possible, so that was pre-recorded and linked in the final pre-race email. I got distracted with downloading the revised .gpx and only remembered to watch the briefing at 5 am on race morning while getting dressed and eating breakfast.
Rather than a mass start, runners could set off from the trailhead at any time from 5am to 7am. We were asked to set off earlier if we expected to be faster and later if we expected to be slower, to reduce overtaking and hopefully, by increasing ‘spread’ along the course, reduce bottlenecks at the aid stations. I intended to set off about 6 am, but ran a bit behind schedule – with the nice result that I met up with my Comrades-running friend Amanda. After dropping off our drop bags (to go to the Knockholt Pound aid station at 50 miles and to Detling at 83 miles) with PPE-wearing volunteers, and a last trip to the toilets, we headed towards the start. Amanda went to pick up her tracker from the table, which was useful as I would probably have forgotten about mine entirely otherwise, wasting money and disappointing family and friends who wanted to follow my progress. Trackers taped to backpack shoulder straps (we had to do that ourselves, due to COVID-19), temperature checked by another volunteer in PPE, and just before 6.30 am we were off.
It’s often been said that 90% of running an ultra is the mental side, rather than the physical. One aspect of that is that setting out to run 100 miles (or 103 in this case) is a big task. It’s easier mentally if you chop that down into smaller segments. In the COVID-19 circumstances I was breaking this race down into four large sections based on where I would replenish my food: Box Hill (well, a little before: the crew point at 22 miles), Knockholt Pound at 50 miles, where my first drop bag would be, and Detling (82 miles) holding my second drop-bag. Besides that, I chopped it into sections between aid stations, where I would get water and maybe a bit of additional food.
NDW trailhead at Farnham, and overlooking Denbies vineyard*
The first section is really very runnable, and I reminded myself to take it easy, as there was a long way to go, although I also decided it made sense not to hold back -too- much while the temperature was still reasonable: only in the mid-70s to low-80s Fahrenheit. Despite running easy I found myself passing other runners almost from the outset (probably due to my slightly late start), and settled into a nice rhythm, walking the uphill sections and allowing myself to run – but not push – on the downhills. The aid station at Puttenham golf course wasn’t active for this year, so it was 15 miles to the first checkpoint at Newlands Corner. I’d decided to hand-carry a 500mL soft bottle in addition to the two bottles on the front of my pack, as I didn’t want to risk running out of water.
To absolutely minimise COVID-19 transmission risks at aid stations, each station had been split into three mini-stations (two later on the course), with water and Tailwind options, Pepsi, and some food in small plastic bags. When I arrived at the aid station there was a short queue. After sanitising my hands with gel I had to wait about three minutes before other runners finished and I could step forward to fill my water bottles. The food supply was pretty minimal compared to the usual amazing Centurion spread – half bananas, satsumas, bags of sweets, crisps, nuts/raisins and individual cheeses (Baby Bel or similar). As I am now to all intents and purposes vegan, I was basically carrying all my own food, because I couldn’t rely on things like the sweets being eatable. I quickly refilled two water bottles, chose a satsuma and stepped away from the table so the next runner could come forward. Off to the side I stuffed the water bottles back into their pockets, peeled the satsuma, then sanitised my hands again (holding the satsuma in my teeth!) and set off. It was barely 9am and already hot enough that I could feel the sweat rolling down my face.
My preferred electrolyte additive is Elete – a concentrated salt solution without any flavouring or sweeteners. Often I put it in the water (how it's meant to be used!) but on this occasion I had decided to simply drink it neat at intervals, squeezing out a number of drops onto my tongue, swallowing then chasing with water. It worked fine except for the time I tipped my head back too far and got the concentrate on the back of my throat and going down the wrong way. That hurt, as well as setting me coughing, and my throat felt raw for the next hour or more, and still felt raw the next several times I ate satsumas at the aid stations.
The second aid station would be just before Box Hill at 25 miles. I had arranged for my husband to meet me at the 22-mile crew point at Steers Field, so I was able to replenish my food supplies there to last me to Knockholt Pound, and I put some more sunscreen on my shoulders, neck, nose and ear tips. So far it had been reasonably cloudy, but the sun was starting to break through and the temperature was rising – my Garmin recorded temperatures reaching 93.2 °F during the afternoon, and another runner reported a reading of 44.5 °C – well over 100 °F – in one of the unshaded areas.
At the temperature rose I kept my effort level and heart rate down, running easy and power hiking the hills. To my surprise I was passing other runners on the uphill sections as well as while running. Going through Denbies I overtook Rob Cowlin, who I know from many SVN races, and it was great to see him – one of the worst things about the lockdown for me has been not seeing everyone at races.
The aid station was a little earlier on the course than usual, at a cricket club just after leaving Denbies, rather than in the Box Hill Stepping Stones’ car park. The queue here was five or six minutes. Some runners were taking ages dithering over the food options. Back out onto the road, down to the underpass, through and back up to the Box Hill Stepping Stones car park. I was feeling fine – probably because I'd been holding back compared with previous years running the NDW50. At some point I discovered my watch had stopped recording when I’d attached a powerbank – despite having worked fine doing that on a recce. Irritating.
Due to pressure of visitors at the stepping stones and at the Box Hill viewpoint, we were diverted off the usual trail twice: first over the bridge rather than the stepping stones, then again half way up the usual steps, on a lower level route for some time before a more gradual climb that seemed to go on forever. Having recced this section a couple of times this year, as well as having raced the NDW50 previously, it seemed very strange to be taking a different path. The route had been well marked, but it was comforting to re-emerge onto the NDW and be back on the familiar paths.
The stepping stones that we didn’t use, and the bridge that we did
From Box Hill to Caterham is the section that always seems to me to be one hill after another: lots of ups and downs with very little in the way of flatter bits. Every so often on the tops of the hills I reminded myself to look around and appreciate the views. As usual on trail runs, I was also watching and listening for birds and other wildlife, but this day seemed to be too hot even for the birds to be active. I did hear some birds of prey calling occasionally, and watched one gliding not far above the treetops.
On a recent recce it had been raining and chilly as I ran over Colley Hill, and as I ran the same trail through this day’s heat and sun I couldn’t help think about the contrast and wishing for a bit of that coolness. Through Gatton Park and past the Millenium Stones. Through the Reigate Hill checkpoint, with only a short queue. Across the golf course, then the cricket ground – where I passed a runner with a GoPro and thought nothing more of it until a few days later someone told me they had spotted me on a YouTube video**. Through St Katherine’s Church, pausing a moment to fill one of my water bottles with lovely cool water, and into Merstham, where along the road section suddenly I heard ‘Debra! Go Debra!’ and there was Peter Johnson, a Striders of Croydon clubmate, being really encouraging and saying how strong I looked – which was nice to hear, as I felt like I was melting. A local was spraying runners with a hosepipe as they passed (if wanted) and I closed my eyes and went right through for a good soaking. A runner ahead of me almost missed the left turn off the road, but I called ‘stop!’ and two crew on the pavement waiting for their runner pointed and called out as well, and he stopped abruptly and made the turn. “Nearly missed that!” he said as I passed him a few seconds later. “It’s easy to miss,” I replied – “I did on a recent recce.” Through the underpass then diagonally up across the fields, power hiking in the sun.
Running happy, near Newland’s Corner and Caterham (Stuart March Photography)
At the Caterham viewpoint it was lovely to see my friend Jo Quantrill (from South London Harriers), and we chatted while I waited in the queue for the aid station, also with Donna, one of the volunteers who I knew.
By now I was into very familiar territory, and knew that in the hot conditions some of the most testing miles lay directly ahead: not in terms of terrain, but simply because much of the next section would be fully exposed to the sun, running along the sides of fields rather than through woodland. I enjoyed the woodland while it lasted, and managed to call out a “left” just as another runner was about to miss a turning.
Reigate Hill view and Gatton Millenium Stones
So far my legs felt fine, my heart and breathing were fine, I was drinking and eating without any problems. I had my home-made energy balls, boiled new potatoes (with a little bag of salt to dip them in), lentil crisps, mini pretzels covered in salt crystals, mixed raisins and cranberries, and a bag of mixed vegan sweets. The important thing was to keep moving steadily, not pushing too hard in the heat, and walking the uphills to save my legs for later. I passed the point where I had fallen in the NDW50 last year, this time not tripping on the bit of flint sticking up through the path. Last bit of woodland, down the steps and out into the sunshine. It was hot, but I had expected that. Onwards – down, along past the quarry, a short sharp hill, and along again, passing the steep hill where the Vanguard Way joins the NDW for a little while, knowing that it’s now only a few fields until the Titsey Plantation and Botley Hill.
A pleasant surprise while trotting along the fields, as I realised that the person walking towards me was familiar – another clubmate, Rel Lindley, who had come out to encourage us on our way. That was a great boost and gave me something to think about other than the heat. Past the Greenwich Meridian sign, along one more field then finally a break from the sun, swinging onto the wide uphill track through the Titsey Plantation and up to the Botley Hill aid station.
When running the NDW50, by this point my legs have always been tired, so it was satisfying to note, as a sign that both my training and my pacing were paying off, that I could power-hike up the hill at a good clip, passing people along the way. At the top, however, the aid station was packed, with about six runners before me in the queue and people sitting all around on chairs and tree trunks. I took advantage of the enforced break to put some more suntan lotion on my shoulders, neck, nose and ears, and had a chat with Ollie Dawson – who I had last seen while recceing the Farnham to Dorking section of the NDW a few months before – about other runners we both knew out on the course. Finally I reached the front of the queue, refilled my bottles, took a satsuma and headed on towards Knockholt Pound. Shortly I passed Gareth Allen (who has been doing absolutely crazy virtual races during lockdown, to while away the disruption to his “12 x 100-milers in 12 months” challenge), who said he was really suffering in the heat. Then I saw yet another clubmate, Myles, sitting under a tree and calling out encouragement – another boost.
Towards Titsey – me (courtesy of Rel Lindley); the Greenwich Meridian Line plaque
Along Chestnut Avenue, thankfully wooded, before Westerham Hill, and about halfway I saw Nikki, with her husband and daughter. They offered me a Calippo, apologising for the fact that it was half melted. I didn’t mind – it was cold and delicious. As a bonus, Nikki poured a load of ice into my hat, which felt wonderful, and passed on the news that she had seen clubmates Ally and Tad already, but not Keith Simpson, who, being in the V70 category and a bit slower as a result, had probably set off later. I trotted off down the lane, sucking on the slushy Calippo and redistributing some of the ice down the front and back of my vest. It was horrifying how quickly the ice melted, but it was great while it lasted.
Cross the road, across more fields, up the steep hill and I knew we were only a few miles out from Knockholt Pound. This was where I usually alerted my husband that I was on my way and could he come to see me finish (if running NDW50) or pick me up (from a long recce run). On this occasion I called him to please meet me at Otford (the next crew point), as I could feel a spot on my back where my heart rate monitor strap was starting to rub quite badly and I wanted to tape it up.
A mile or so before the village, we had a second diversion from the NDW, which unfortunately meant running on road for a while rather than the usual fields and woodland, and was unfamiliar. I was relieved to spot the village hall (aid station). One of the volunteers at the front of the hall was Louise Ayling, and it was lovely to see a familiar face (and no queue). I’d volunteered here in the past, and my memory was of the space packed with people. On this occasion there were far fewer runners in the hall, with chairs spread out around the walls and further chairs outside, but there was another familiar face, as clubmate Ally was there. I got my drop bag and sat down to change my shoes and socks. Ally and I chatted a little while we got ourselves sorted – she was having some digestive problems, finding it hard to swallow anything, so was surviving mostly on Tailwind.
It was so hot that even changing my socks and shoes took longer than it should have. Thankfully the volunteers were able to provide some wipes so I could clean my feet of dust and larger bits of road grime before putting on the fresh socks, which felt really nice. I also ate one of my pre-prepared sandwiches, stuffed my next lot of trail food into the side pockets and my head torches into the main pocket of my pack, and of course refilled my water bottles. The volunteers also provided a bowl of ice, so I set off again with ice under my cap, melting and cooling me down – heavenly!
Past where I’d seen wild orchids growing on a recce, down the hill, across the road and onwards towards Otford. I felt a bit bad as I realised I’d taken ages at the aid station and my husband would be waiting for me. Thankfully we had agreed to meet at a bench on a tiny patch of green, after the station, so he would be in the shade and no doubt reading. I finally arrived, and Aidan applied strips of kinesiology tape to protect my back. A kiss and I was off again, up the steep hill and the endless steps, then continuing on the route that was reasonably familiar after two recce runs.
Elephants on the way to Otford; lovely poppies on a field edge
At one point a reminder that we were on the Pilgrim’s Way: two men, one in old-fashioned monk’s garb and leaning heavily on a long staff, walking along the footpath. Into the Wrotham aid station and out again. Passing through some woodland I realised the light was beginning to go, so I paused and dug out my headtorches – my new LEDLenser neo 10R on my cap, and my old Silva Ninox 3 round my waist. A right turn down the lane and into Trosley Country Park. Partway through the park I switched on the main torch, which lit up the route fantastically, but gave a disconcerting dark patch seemingly just under my eyes. I switched the other light on and that area lit up. The combination of the two lights worked really well. The path through Trosley seemed to last forever and I hadn’t seen any of Centurion’s marking for ages, so I was very glad to have recced and know that there was no way I could have left the route. Finally to the end, with a sharp right turn and down a recently-resurfaced path, with another runner remarking as I passed that I was being sensible while he was being stubborn, not turning his light on until the next checkpoint.
The NDW turns north here, as it has to go to the Medway crossing. Heading towards Holly Hill, I noticed a crumpled empty soft bottle that had evidently fallen from another runner’s pocket, so I picked it up. At Holly Hill aid station (where I also briefly saw Ally), I asked if I could leave it with them, as I didn’t really want to carry it the rest of the way, and they agreed that I could. This was also a crew point, so as I left the aid station and turned back onto the trail I called out to the nearest crews: ‘Pass it along the line – if anyone’s runner has lost a soft bottle, I found it and I’ve left it here.” Immediately one of the crew members replied, “An Ultimate Direction one?” As I frowned, trying to remember what those looked like, he added “grey with a red top?” “Yes!”. “Thank you!” and he headed towards the aid station.
At some point I fished a boiled potato out to eat and it smelled slightly 'off' so I didn't eat the last two in the bag - nor the ones that I had intended to eat that were in the next drop bag. Sadly that removed a good source of both fuel and 'real' food for my stomach, and I didn't really have anything as a replacement – my sandwiches just didn't look appetising.
There’s a little section of the NDW just before the Medway Crossing that I’m very familiar with. The NDW crosses Ranscombe Farm and Nature Reserve, where I have spent many hours running in Saxons, Vikings and Normans events, sometimes in ideal conditions and sometimes in atrocious mud, but always in great company with fantastic camaraderie. It was comforting, therefore, to think of this section as ‘running towards Ranscombe’. Reaching the farm was lovely; this bit I knew so well (although I was used to running it in the other direction) and I remembered the amazing flowers I had seen there during my recce runs. The Medway crossing itself I was not looking forward to, after two very hot crossings on my recces, but at least this late I didn’t have the sun beating down on me, and there was considerably less traffic whizzing past on the other side of the tall fence.
Ranscombe Nature Reserve, with beautiful summer flowers
Onwards towards Bluebell Hill, and a couple of miles before the aid station I spotted another soft bottle on the ground, so I picked it up (nearly full, this time, a very long, very thin bottle), and carried it with me to Bluebell Hill aid station, where I left it and hoped they would transport it to the end for possible reclamation by its owner.
Milestone 79 miles from Farnham, and stones to sidle round into a field
Next stop, Detling. Here I reclaimed my second drop-bag, ate a bit of the instant noodles that I had made up in the morning, and switched out my food bags for fresh ones. I’d also noticed on turning off my Ninox torch that the battery indicator light was orange, so I fished out spare batteries and changed those before heading off again (the main torch was still fine). There was a runner there who was totally unfamiliar with the trail. Those of us who knew it told him that the next section was gnarly to Hollingbourne, but it was only a few miles – and after that it was much easier all the way to the end.
Having remembered the next few miles as truly horrible, they didn’t feel too bad, even in the dark (having good torches really helped), and Centurion’s route markings were plentiful. At one point I glanced at my watch and discovered a blank screen. Despite the earlier recharge, the battery had run out – frustrating! I fished out the powerbank and connected it, gave it a minute then switched the watch on and got the course started again. It was another several minutes before I realised I hadn’t actually pressed the start button yet so it wasn’t recording my time etc. Steps down, steps up, ducking under branches and stepping over roots. I was moving more quickly than I had expected on this section, and even in the dark it was sufficiently familiar from my recce that I always knew I was on the correct route (and in the little section where the course took us slightly off the NDW, straight across a field rather than up and round the edges, I recognised that as well). I even passed a couple of other runners. Concentrating on my footing and balance, I didn’t eat much during this section, which was almost certainly a mistake. When I was on one of the easier bits crossing a field and rummaged around in the running vest pockets, I couldn’t find my bag of sweets, which was a real blow, as I had been relying on them for energy. I also felt guilty for having littered the trail by dropping them somewhere along the route. I tried to eat an energy ball instead, but for some reason found it unappetising and had problems forcing myself to chew and swallow it, and I didn’t try the raisins and cranberries – no idea why not. The wind had picked up and actually felt cool along the tops; I enjoyed the feeling of almost being cold. I'd worried that the LEDLenser would feel heavy, but it didn't – although my head was beginning to itch from having the hat on (and now the head torch on top) for so long.
Finally, I descended into Hollingbourne, where the wet ground indicated a shower that hadn’t touched me. Only 15 easy miles to go! I looked around for the aid station but couldn’t see it. There were some runner crews standing around and I asked one of them where the aid station was. She pointed down the lane and said ‘about three and a half miles that way!’ For some reason, although I knew it was 8.5 miles from Detling to the next aid station and only about 5 miles from Detling to Hollingbourne, I had it in my head there would be an aid station there. Although I still had nearly 500 mL of water left, and didn’t actually need the aid station yet, the information that I had 3.5 miles to the next checkpoint really threw me.
I started off down the lane, power walking initially to give my legs a bit of a rest. Then I checked the time, did some calculations and worked out that, despite having lost about 30 minutes to the aid station queues, and spent too long at the half-way aid station, if I could average 12 minutes per mile I might just squeak in under 24 hours. So I started to run. For at least 20 strides. Then I dropped back to a walk, frustrated. It wasn’t that my legs were obviously stiff and sore – they were not – but my glutes and my hip area in general felt completely tired and lacking in energy for running. The lane was going slightly uphill, so I waited for a downhill section and tried again. This time I maybe managed 30 strides with each leg. It was hugely frustrating. I could power hike at a reasonable pace without any problem, but my legs simply didn’t want to run. As an added problem to the glutes and hips feeling out of energy, my stomach was beginning to feel uncomfortable and on the edge of nausea when I ran, and my guts didn’t like it either! And my feet were feeling sore, despite my having changed into quite padded shoes (for me) at Knockholt Pound. By now none of the food I had left seemed appetising and I was really regretting the loss of my sweets. I nibbled on the savoury snacks, but that was all.
I continued down the lane, power hiking, trying to run whenever I hit a bit of downhill, managing 30 strides with each leg here, 50 there, while a few other runners started to pass me. Into the Lenham aid station, where I refilled my water bottles, took another satsuma and walked on. It was getting light, and my head was itching, so periodically I experimented with turning off my headtorches, and as soon as it was light enough I stopped, stowed the torches in my pack and took my hat off, giving my scalp a good scratch with both hands. Onwards, with a few more runners passing me. By now I knew the sub-24 wasn’t going to happen. At about 5am I phoned my husband, told him I’d hopefully be finishing in a couple of hours.
Along the final fields before the road into Ashford – and a lovely cedar
Onwards. Into Dunn St Farm, the final aid station, where I accidentally put Tailwind into one of my water bottles, but thankfully a volunteer told me in time that I could put water into the other one. I took another satsuma and walked on, still trying to jog for 30, 50 or occasionally 60 double-strides at a time. At one point I accidentally drank the Tailwind, which tasted awful. Across the fields, and I was glad that I had recced this bit, as I knew exactly where I was going, without constantly keeping an eye out for Centurion arrows and tape. Through the old churchyard and onto the road. Only 3.5 miles to go. They went on forever. I was glad of the Centurion signs again, so I didn’t have to use any mental energy on navigation. Walking briskly, jogging for a little, walking again, another brief jog. I forgot to even try to eat: I just wanted to finish.
Most of the road section had been downhill, and I’d forgotten the final rise before the stadium. Nothing to do except get over it, so I kept walking. My husband came into view and pointed me to the correct gate to take into the stadium. As my feet hit the track, I managed to break into a jog and kept it up for about a third of a lap, then dropped to a walk for a little while round the far bend, before persuading my legs into something resembling a run for the last of the curve and the final straight. I tried to summon a smile for the photographer as I approached the line, crossed it and stopped. Done. I had left everything I had out on the course and finished in 24:43:22.
Along the back straight of the track, and finished. (Stuart March Photography)
I collected my medal, posed for the finish-line photos, then headed off the track, accepting the T-shirt, congratulations from the volunteers and the offer of a vegan hot dog, but wanting nothing more than to sit down and hope my innards would stop feeling so uncomfortable.
Me and my NDW100 buckle, outside the Julie Rose Stadium (finish) building***. I still need to earn one of these saying "100 miles - One Day" rather than "100 miles – Finisher"!
Louise Ayling told me that I was 4th Woman and I was really pleased with that, but I’m not sure I managed to smile about it – I had left everything I had out on the course. I felt awful that I couldn’t summon up the energy to thank everyone properly, but I was feeling sick and weak and couldn’t find any posture where I was comfortable.
After trying lying down on the grassy bank, then in the car, hoping to regain enough energy to thank the volunteers properly, I finally gave up and we set off for home – where I confirmed I was 4th woman, 22nd overall – and 1st VF50!
MANY thanks to the Centurion people and all the volunteers who made this race happen – to get this held in the circumstances was amazing, and of course we couldn't do these races without the marvellous volunteers.
Retrospective musings: I’ve run something over 100 marathons and ultras now, mostly ultras, but this was only my fourth 100-mile race and I’m still learning how to tackle them. I am really happy with my performance up to Hollingbourne. I kept my effort level down, my energy remained reasonably high despite the heat, and I was passing other runners throughout. I think I paced myself well through the heat of the day, and the couple of caffeine tablets I took, one at about 11pm and the other a few hours later, seem to have worked as I didn’t get sleepy – a far cry from my first 100-miler when I discovered that it -is- possible to fall asleep while walking. My heart rate stayed easily in the low-aerobic zone throughout, as my pace was limited mainly by the heat.
The last 15 miles I’m not so happy about! In retrospect, after the potatoes smelled ‘off’ I should have made sure I ate some of my sandwiches, even if I didn’t feel like it (some other runners had packed bottles of ice into their drop bags – that would be an excellent idea for another occasion). Once I discovered I didn’t have my sweets (I found them still in the drop bag when I unpacked it, so at least I hadn’t littered the trail) I should have made myself eat more of the dried fruit and the energy balls, and maybe taken another caffeine tablet. The calves, quads and hamstrings were fine, but the glutes got very tired – suggesting that I was using them properly (which is good) but need to strengthen them more.
I enjoyed the race (well, maybe not those last miles) despite the heat. I’m delighted with my placing: 1st VF50, 4th woman and 22nd overall out of a field of 235 starters, and in a race that only 46% of the field managed to finish – the coaching and hard training have paid off. The sub-24 remains elusive, but only 17 runners managed that mark in the heat, and I have two more 100-mile races this year, so who knows!
* All photos except the ones of me and the one of the 100-mile buckle taken on recces, so all in daylight even if I passed the spot at night!
** YouTube video is at– I appear from 4:57-5:02.
*** I was too tired and feeling too grotty to go back onto the track for Aidan to take a photo with the track/Centurion finish arch in the background - and we were supposed to be staying off the track if possible (keeping numbers down)
Written by Simon Dicks - https://www.focusedrunning.co.uk/
It was the night before an early start to Gallivare, Northern Sweden. This being my third multi-stage race you may think I was calm and ready for bed, however, I was still anxiously packing and repacking my race bag, checking the mandatory kit over and over again, constantly questioning myself whether I could live without an extra pair of socks, a spare mid-layer top and lots of additional calories. So many questions racing through my mind.
I was checking each item, weighing it and working out how to lose the grams. I hadn’t paid much attention to the weight of my bag before but my mindset had changed. In previous races I’d been running to complete; in this race I would be running to compete.
The journey to Gallivare involved two planes, a train and a final bus to the Mountain Centre where the event truly started. Once there we took our seats and listened to Kris King, Race Director for Beyond The Ultimate events. As the brief went on you could feel the tension, and the fear, rising in the room. The trepidation of what this terrain could do to us, as for me, with each moment, I got more excited for the challenge that lay ahead.
From the moment the race brief finished time seemed to speed up. The room exploded into a hive of activity with medics checking runners for every item on the mandatory list. Simply put: if you don’t have an item you’re not running. I knew my pack was complete with all the required items but there is always something about this moment in epic races - you’re not 100% sure about your bag until the medics sign your kit form, which they did, and I could then focus on eating (something I am not big on).
Food is unique to each runner and only recently have I felt comfortable with myself and the amount I eat during races. I am on the minimal side and trying to eat a 1000-calorie dinner wasn’t easy. It probably took me over an hour to finish and I only felt relaxed when it was done. I was eating 1000 calories based on what I’d heard from past runners so, with the fear of running out of energy, I didn’t want to be caught short.
My race food per day was as follows:
1000 Calorie Expedition food pouch for breakfast & another for dinner
2 x Chia Charge Bars
1 x 20g block of cheddar cheese
1 x Clif Shot Bloks - Cherry
1 x Homemade Chocolate Cookie
1 x 33 Fuel Recovery Drink
1 x Kenco 3-in-1 Coffee sachet
1 x Cadbury Hot Chocolate sachet
Nunn Electrolytes - one per CP (CheckPoint) and at the end of the stage
On the longest day I would have extra cheese and Chia Charge bars. After that day, however, and all the other days I had food left over. I also struggled to eat 1000 calories at breakfast. If I were to change something it would be to have a 500 calorie breakfast with an additional desert meal. Please don’t think my food plan will necessarily work for you. Every individual is different so you really must experiment and find what suits your body … it’s taken me four years and I’m still learning.
We get the call to say the overnight accommodation is ready. Reindeer skins are down so it’s time to go. Setting off through the cold night we find our home for the night are tepees in the snow. There are six of us to a tepee. We dive in to escape the cold, scrambling about to get our expensive sleeping bags down and inside them as quick as possible. I made sure I changed into my night gear before we left the Mountain Centre.
It was an interesting night’s sleep … anxious, excited, cold, do I really need to go out for the bathroom? … this all adds to the experience.
RACE DAY 1 - 31 Miles (Strava)
Back to the Mountain Centre we go, walking briskly to keep warm. My focus is on eating and feeling content that my pack is exactly as I want it to be. The centre is busy with kit all over tables, some people talking, some completely engrossed. I was more on the quiet side today; I felt calm; my mind felt relaxed; I was ready to run. In the final moments before leaving the centre I had a discussion with Simon Wilson and his son Sacha over whether to wear a mid-layer top. Having never experienced such cold weather in the UK it was an unknown for us, so I had cautiously put on a base-, mid- and outer-layer. After ten minutes of debate we all decided that two layers was the way to go, so off came the mid-layer and in the bag it went. This was to be one of the best decisions I made during the entire week, the two layers were just right for my body temperature and effort level.
Stepping out in the two-layer system I could feel the cold. Next to me was good friend Craig Williams who, with a military background, mentioned it’s best to start cold, let your body warm up and then adjust layers if needed. This made complete sense and with my mind set on running as much of the course as possible I felt happy.
Knowing that there would be times of walking, mainly on the hard uphill’s, I would take this as a march, giving my running muscles a rest whilst moving forward making good progress. This also allows me time to eat more comfortably, think about what is coming next and prepare for the next section.
As Kris does the countdown I am focused. I have a plan. I’ll move at my own pace; at my effort level; sticking to my movement strategy whether that be on ice or snow. We start running on a frozen road, the sun is shining, the scene is beautiful, this is why I do these races for moments like this.
The first checkpoint (CP1) is 10km which we reach comfortably. I have a very small lead over Aodh from Ireland as we hit the first of the frozen lakes, which is where the first decision has to be made - snow shoes or not? I persist without them across the lake to the first climb, but here it’s very clear that snow shoes are needed so on they go. I’d practiced taking them on/off many times so this was a quick change but, nonetheless, frustrating to stop. Having gained a minute on Aodh, I’m hoping he’s doing the same! At this time I also make the decision to use the poles, strictly for the uphill only, as I want my hands free for downhill running. In haste I don’t put my hands through the Leki gloves, I hold my poles directly, this caused the gloves to come off of the pole clip a few times, running back to meet Aodh who had kindly picked them up. Not something to be repeated, although happy to see Aodh in snow shoes as well.
After locking my pole gloves in my bag I set off up the climb, only treating myself to the view behind me once at the top. It is truly spectacular. Having never led a race before this is a whole new feeling - the only similar feeling I have had was on day four of the Jungle Ultra when I ran into second place. I now told myself that no-one would be taking this away from me, so I kept moving forward on undulating ice and snow, keeping within my chosen effort level which I hoped would keep me in front.
I find myself moving nicely, feeling happy and absolutely loving it. I have music on and I’m really in a trance, in the zone. I move through CP2 quickly continuing on the same type of ground. , I switch in and out of snow shoes a few times, only to switch back into them again quickly, so I decide they’ll be staying on for the rest of the day and most of the week. I feel a hot spot on my heel, thinking the snow shoes may be causing rubbing, I decide to assess it at CP3. There isn’t anything going on. I have a good chat then off I go. I was there for 10 minutes and Aodh had come into view. At this point my race head kicked in and I would no longer be having good chats at the CPs!
CP4 is the final stop before camp, at the bottom of a climb before a fantastic descent into woodland. I love this hill: the downhill is amazing; you can see for miles; it’s so much fun moving quickly knowing the camp at Aktse isn’t far away. I see the cabins and I know I’m close, I’m buzzing for my first ever stage win in an Ultra. I see the Yeti flags and adrenaline kicks in … I run past the finish line but no-one is there. What an anticlimax for me. I shout hello and up pops a local Sami on top of a roof clearing snow. He logs my time and a medic tells me I’m early :-)
The cabins are amazing, warm and cosy. Now it’s recovery time and preparation for day 2, Aodh comes in second and Alex third, lovely guys I would get to know well over the week.
RACE DAY 2 -27 Miles (Strava)
After a relatively good night’s sleep we are woken by Kris and it’s time to get ready for day 2. I make the decision to wear the Leki gloves from the off to prevent me from having to run backward to meet Aodh again! It had snowed overnight so the ground is soft, meaning snow shoes from the off, something I got used to and in the end I forgot they were even on.
We group at the start for the countdown, again with Lee and Craig at the front, soon to be joined by Aodh. I don’t feel any pressure about the day ahead. Yes I was surprised by my performance on day 1 but there are 3 racing days left and I’m not thinking about the win, purely let’s do the same today and see what happens.
As we set off I am joined by Aodh. He takes a nice video of us running across the lake, then we enter woodland prior to a final lake before the 700m, 6KM accent up Mount Kabla. As I cross the lake before the climb I have a few minutes on Aodh and Alex, I could see them in the distance, but I’m also starting to lose some feeling in my hands. The temperature difference between lake and woods must be 10 degrees or more as I continue across, not wanting to stop to lose time or for the guys to see me stop, I keep pushing on to the woods whilst continuing to lose the feeling in my hands. My biggest mistake of the race was having my down gloves packed away in my bag. To this day I can’t remember why I did this, maybe a slip of preparation concentration. Once I make it to the woods it’s an operation to get the gloves, which is a frightening moment as the cold comes so quickly, affecting me badly as I fumble about and get them on. My fingers are painful and not easy to move but, once the gloves are on, I feel happy to push on, with a look over my shoulder I can’t see anyone and off I go.
They say experience is what you get when you do something wrong, so I put my small but painful mistake down to experience and remind myself how important it is to anticipate potential problems and plan for how I’m going to deal with them when they occur during the race.
Now I’m climbing steadily in sheltered woods towards CP2 which is before the main climb to Kabla. A very quick stop to replace frozen water bottles and I am straight off with no chatting like yesterday. As I work my way up I can see the guys behind me. I check my watch and tried to figure out the margin I have. I think at this point it’s about 10 minutes. The climb is one of those climbs that just keeps giving … when you think you’re at the top you have more to do, so when I finally reach the top I look back over what I’ve run, and again it’s spectacular.
CP3 is before the big decent down to Arrenjarka. Getting to CP3 is a mixture of running and power hiking as it’s up, down, up, down, constantly. When the CP comes into view I pick up speed and execute a quick pit stop to refill with warm water. I’m conscious that I ‘m in the lead so I don’t hang around except for a quick chat with Kris, who is on Facebook ‘live’, before going down hill to camp.
The snow is treacherous if you step off the marked course, and even on the marked course you can find yourself deep in waist high snow. That’s what I discovered on the way down. Smiling to myself I get back up and move on. I keep looking over my shoulder for Aodh and Alex as I haven’t seen them since coming down Kabla. Knowing they could be close behind me is one of the things that keeps me pushing on. Again the run to camp is down through woodland, frozen lakes and finally more woodland and, of course, more frozen lakes. This part of the course is brilliant: happy free legs and the stage finish not too far away. The mind, body and soul are happy and when I can see cabins I know I’m home. This is when the body releases extra energy to push you on, and I’m happy to see Will who guided me in. A 2nd stage win, is incredible and surprising. I’m slowly starting to believe I can do this.
The big downer for the day was hearing that my very good friend Lee Haswell had to withdraw from the event due to suspected and later confirmed broken ribs. I met him in the main centre and had a cuddle and relaxed for a moment. It’s never a nice feeling to see a mate injured and out of the race, but we’re stronger in the long run when this happens.
RACE DAY 3 - 26.2 Miles (Strava)
Marathon day on the frozen lakes. We’re the last cabin to be woken which leaves us with very little time to get ready. Another lesson learned here - take control of the alarm!
A frantic 45 minutes commences, trying to eat, pack and make sure I’m set for the day is a right stress and not something I want to happen again. I hardly eat anything and don’t want to miss the race start, so this isn’t a great start to day 3, a fast day. It feels more like a race day today as we are out of the snow shoes and my feet are running free. My thinking is the same as the previous two days: keep to my effort level; see what happens. Gathering at the start line it’s very cold, down gloves are on and once more I am totally focused on the day ahead.
This is a great day of running, non-stop, no walking, but very challenging. Starting without snow shoes feels great and I set off across a frozen lake before entering woodland. As soon as we are off the lake the soft snow hits and the feet sink instantly into the snow, sometimes inches, sometimes a foot or two. I don’t immediately change into the snow shoes as the bulk of the day is on a long frozen lake so, with this on my mind and sensing Aodh behind me, I’m not keen to stop and put them on. Then it gets to a point where I’m waist-deep in snow and getting very frustrated with the inability to move, so it’s definitely time for snow shoes. I make the change quickly and instantly know it was the right thing to do. Now I’m moving quicker and with less effort.
After the first woods with the snow shoes on I cross a few lakes and hit CP1 very quickly. I don’t stop. The medics call out lots of questions and I say yes to all, moving swiftly on, hunting CP2 down. This would be the start of the long lake section of 20K. Aodh, and what looks like Dariusz rather than Alex, are only minutes behind me. If I can just keep ahead as each CP goes by the overall win would be getting closer. I’m really in race mode now.
Between CP1 and CP2 it’s either frozen lake or woods. I pass a small settlement with waves and claps, which makes me suspect CP2 is close, and means a fast change out of the snow shoes to make my way across the lake.
Upon reaching CP2 the snow is very soft. I shout at the CP from meters away asking if I should take the snow shoes off. The Sami says yes so off they come. I had prepared myself for this quick change and putting them quickly in my bag, change made, fresh water on-boarded, I move on, checking over my shoulder and there are Aodh and Dariusz, minutes behind. This next section is where nothing changes: you are moving forward but it seems at such a slow pace; you look behind and you see runners; it’s impossible to get a feel for the distance or time difference; the only thing to do is keep moving and fast. My effort level has increased during this stage and I‘m not letting up as I close on CP3 … with 10K to go I just have to keep moving. I can feel myself getting fatigued, slowing down, and looking back I can sense that I’m being hunted down. With that in mind I dig in, kept my cadence up and eventually see the island where the stage finishes. Leaving the main track of the frozen lake, the soft snow stops me in my tracks. 100 meters to go and they hit you with this! I’m cursing. Charlotte, an amazing medic and supporter, is cheering and clapping like mad. I make it to the finish line and fall to the ground. A good day’s racing!
Now it’s time to recover and get ready for day 4. Dariusz finished 2nd, with Aodh in 3rd. This result puts me 42 minutes ahead overall, which is nothing with a long stage to come, but I now feel like I have the opportunity to do something that I would never have imagined possible. I am starting to believe there is a chance to win with just one big day to go!
Race Day 4 - 41 Miles (Strava)
It’s an early start to a long day. We wake to multiple alarms after not wanting a repeat of the previous day. Dariusz is out of the door fast. After getting to know each other and hearing stories, Dariusz is a good 100-mile runner, so him literally running out of the door gets us all thinking he is on for it. My plan for the day is to maintain my effort level, not to blow up and loose the hard fought minutes I had acquired. The 10 minutes wasted on Day 1 could come back to haunt me. We line up at the start and it’s Alex not Dariusz who flies out of the blocks!
Right from the off Alex takes off. I think for a moment ‘Let’s have some of this”, then I tell myself to not get sucked into in a battle. Alex has 1 hour 39 minutes to make up over the day and I know I just need to keep moving at the pace which has served me so well so far. It’s actually nice being the chaser not the chased. At each CP I ask how long ago Alex had left, which allows me to keep focused and not to lose my head with the fact he’s surging ahead with that great spare set of legs he got known for.
Today is mainly flat, with either frozen lakes or woodland, all stunning. It makes me feel privileged to be running in such a place. My memory of this day will be that it was just one foot after the other, ticking off CPs until they eventually got closer and closer to the finish line. At the final CP, the Sami give some basic instructions that we aren’t far from the finish. At this stage of the event and this time of day, I feel like it’s great news, but … either I miss a turning (which I don’t) or his idea of not far is completely subjective, and from the perspective of my legs it is far!
I’m now heading up the trail in search of the finish knowing Alex is approximately ten minutes ahead. I’m feeling happy, but this last stretch goes on forever. It’s so interesting how your brain can keep your body going along quite comfortably, then new information makes your brain think differently and ultimately affects your effort level when the finish is not as close as your brain thinks. With the increased effort level my brain is telling my legs to stop and walk. I don’t. I’ve battled too hard and too long to allow this happen, and I wonder now if the Sami had not given me the information, how different this last stretch may have been.
The last stretch concludes on a frozen lake with large, uneven and impossible-to-run-on ice cracks. Not exactly what is needed at this moment, but it doesn’t matter. I can see the end point in the distance and my legs are kicking on. Hearing the team shouting and clapping, I speed up, zoom under the underpass, then up the hill to the centre and into the Arctic circle, Supermanning onto the ice. This was a special moment for me. Alex had finished 12 minutes ahead; a great day’s running by him, indeed.
Now it’s time to relax once more in the Centre. It feels surreal as I’ve won the race but there’s still one day to go. The fifth day would be a day to run with new and old friends.
RACE DAY 5 - 9 Miles (Strava)
We start off with a group photo: all battered, sore muscles, tendons, blisters, the normal for a multi-stage, but it’s easy to forget that and there are plenty of smiles as we move onto the start line for the final time. It’s a sad moment as this really has been an amazing experience, but it’s going to come to an end.
Aodh, Alex, Dariusz and myself talk about running this stage together which we do. It’s a great end to the week. We soon catch up with my Jungle Ultra mates, Lee and Craig, who had sped off at the start. Dariusz decides to walk the last few kilometres so the three of us run the remainder of the course to the finish, one of my best moments from the race, sharing a good emotional chat with amazing human beings.
Finishing is fantastic. I’ve done something I hadn’t thought possible. Was it the focused and dedicated training that had allowed this to happen? My mind? Or even both? Whatever it was, it had all come together and opened up my world to discovering what more I can do with my body. I’m already beginning to research what my next event could be in the ultra trail scene.
Beyond The Ultimate (BTU)
Everyone who takes part in an Ultra event is there for their own reasons. They are on their own running journey and just putting themselves out there on the start line is amazing. If you are reading this and thinking about signing up to this event or any of the BTU events I simply can’t recommend them enough. The team at BTU is like a family when you’re out there, and once you do one you’ll be hooked. (ICE ULTRA ENTRY)
I caught up with Will from BTU a few months after the event for an Everything Endurance Podcast.
I will be launching Focused Running in 2021, my coaching business for runners. Focused Running was born on the long bus ride back from Jokkmokk. Sat next to me was Lee Haswell who gave me the confidence that I could do something with my passion and experience. Learning to run efficiently is what made the difference at the Ice Ultra. That process wasn’t just one thing - it was a combination of both physical and mental changes that made the difference.
If you’re interested in improving your running, whether it’s to complete a long-distance race or even to compete for a podium finish, then please do register your interest in being coached.
Written by Ilsuk Han
It was shaping up to be the worst of times. And we didn’t know it yet, but it was to get bleaker still. It was still relatively early into this new decade, and on 5 March Paris Marathon announced its postponement due to Covid-19. Just a few days earlier on 1 March Tokyo Marathon did run but as a very much stripped-down affair for elite athletes only.
But that was Tokyo, half-way across the world and a whole lot closer to Wuhan, where this coronavirus reportedly spread from, and World Health Organisation had yet to declare the disease a pandemic. Surely Paris Marathon had overreacted? Alas – subsequent weeks saw similar announcements from Boston Marathon and London Marathon, both rescheduled to Autumn and, in the case of Boston, subsequently cancelled. Sign of the times, sure, but I had stopped running big city marathons some years ago, so just sympathised with friends who had been affected, shrugged, and carried on.
And then, on 15 March, an email from Centurion Running which impacted me more directly – postponement of the season-opener South Downs Way 50 from April to October, and North Downs Way 50 from May to July (subsequently moved again to November). They weren’t the only Centurion races to be affected – the Track 100 got cancelled and Thames Path 100 was moved from May to September, but I wasn’t entered in those. I was however entered into both SDW50 and NDW50 and South Downs Way 100, which would also eventually get pushed back from June to November.
Source: Chris Mills/Centurion Running
And just like that, I – and indeed, all other runners – went from looking forward to a decently busy and challenging race schedule to…nothing. Nothing but weeks and months of being laid off, furloughed, or working from home, with a daily allowance of outdoor exercise if lucky and news updates of ICU cases and deaths that punctuated the lockdown, both here in the UK and globally. There remained the faintest glimmer of hope that we might have actual races come the end of Summer and into Autumn, but at this point no one seemed to have any clarity or certainty beyond what was next on Netflix.
And then it got me. I certainly didn’t see it coming, at least to me. In the span of two weeks, from secretly hoping that SDW50 might just get postponed since I was less than adequately trained, I went from someone who hadn’t been running because of a misplaced “mojo” to someone who struggled to even make it out of the bed, never mind go out for a daily dose of exercise.
You see, in between doing all the things that I did to occupy myself with instead of running, I had caught what was later confirmed to be the virus. In the week prior to that day waking up and thinking that I felt rubbish, I had dined out with friends, gone to the cinema twice, been to a live gig, had a social run with 20 others and beers after (the only kind of running I did in the last year), and been to the pub twice. Promiscuous, I know, but “social distancing” had yet to make it into the popular vernacular.
What followed for most of April was lockdown in every sense of the word. Not only the one that was government mandated, but also one imposed on my body and mind by the coronavirus. While I didn’t have the cough or shortness of breath, I did lose smell and taste and was generally void of any energy. Even after more than two weeks of bed rest, an outing to the local store for supplies left me drenched in sweat and exhausted.
My first attempt at a run on 9 April, exactly three weeks since initial onset of malaise, was a pitiful shuffle, one where the 4.7 miles out the door and a lap of Battersea Park which normally takes about 45 minutes took almost one hour as I struggled to sustain a jog for more than a couple of hundred yards at a time. I did go out for two more runs that week, a 6 miler and a “long” one of 7.8 miles, encouraged by the fact that I didn’t seem to be relapsing and stubbornly determined to make full use of my allotted time outside.
A life-affirming post-recovery run
I totalled 18.5 miles in that post-Covid Week 1. Now, ironically, that is actually more than I had been averaging since I completed Autumn 100 in October the previous year, such was the lack of mojo in the ensuing “dark” months. But now, with a newfound appreciation for the freedom of movement and simply gratitude for having what little health I had left, I was determined to, well, just get out as often as I could manage and keep moving in a bid for post-Covid recovery.
The following week I accumulated 36 miles over five runs, and the same in the week after that, including a run over 10 miles. I guessed that over that period I went from 60% to maybe about 85% of full fitness. Not quite there yet but most definitely moving in right direction, seemingly with every run. There was no doubt in my mind I was one of the lucky ones.
It was in the following week, 1 May, that after days of teasing us into the lead-up, Centurion announced details of the One Community Virtual Event, which was to take place in the week of 25 to 31 May. Entrants had from midnight to midnight over the week to complete a challenge distance of their choice, from 5km to 100 miles, with a buckle award to 100-mile finishers and wooden medal for the rest. As per Centurion tradition, runners had the option to forgo the swag and plant a tree instead.
He ain’t heavy but….
It was just what I – and as it turned out, 1000s of others in the running community needed right there and then. It was an event which brought with it the kind of challenge and focus that was too absent to many of us who had all, in some way or another, lost too much in those uncertain and restless days of forced lockdown. Whether intentionally or accidentally, but crucially unavoidably, Centurion had found not only the right chord, but probably the only chord that could have been struck at that time. And boy did it reverberate. Centurion RD James Elson sums up the event as it impacted on the community as a whole much better than I can in his event report so I’ll just stick to what I did, and what it meant to me personally.
The challenge was a timely opportunity to plot my way back to post-Covid recovery. It was also a chance to revel in my newfound joy for running. It was a chance to do some training for once for whatever races may or may not happen later in the year. But a challenge it most definitely was, since I had decided to go for the 100 miles and I had never, in the decade that I had been calling myself a “runner” had a 100-mile training week.
Centurion thoughtfully organised a podcast featuring Robbie Britton alongside James in the lead up to the event week, and that proved valuable in coming up with a strategy. Doing the 100 miles in one hit was implicitly discouraged – not that I’d contemplate it for a second anyway. But incorporating a double session day or two seemed sound advice, as was the one to start the week with a long run to bank the miles and maybe thereby allow the luxury of a rest day later in the week.
My One Community 100-mile Week
Monday 25 May: 26.1 miles on the familiar and local trails of Thames Path, Richmond Park, and Wimbledon Common. Good to bank some decent miles but only 26% done!
Tuesday 26 May: 12.1 miles on North Downs Way from Newlands Corner to Seale. I love the NDW and the route ends at a friend’s house for a BBQ, so great way to get to 38%.
Wednesday 27 May: A double session day, with 10.6 miles along the Royal Parks in Westminster in the morning and 6 miles on the local Thames Path loop in the evening. Much to reflect on during my runs today. An NHS letter received in the morning confirmed presence of Covid-19 antibodies in the blood plasma that I had donated two weeks prior. As great as the One Community event is, and as fun as the week is, it was a sobering reminder of why such a virtual event was necessitated in the first place. Stay alert, stay grateful. Over halfway at 54%.
Thursday 28 May: A rest day ahead of a big one the next day but still nervous about having to cover almost 50 miles over 3 days. Still at 54%.
Friday 29 May: 30 miles along the southern half of Capital Ring from Woolrich to Wimbledon. I had always wanted to explore Capital Ring and this was as good an occasion as any. Sunny and a bit too warm, as it had been the whole week. 84% done and beginning to believe that the goal is achievable.
Saturday 30 May: 28 laps of a local block for 8 miles total. There were some in the community who were doing laps (of whatever) to achieve their goals so I decided to throw some into my mix. I admit it was a bit of lap envy which prompted this but shoot me if I ever mention laps again. 92% done.
Sunday 31 May: 9 miles on Thames Path from Richmond to Hammersmith with Philip who is amongst the few who I can spend long time with on the trail, as we discovered during our 2019 Grand Slam attempts. Perhaps it’s because he also likes a beer or two after a run and so we celebrated reaching our goals with some beer. 101 miles!
Celebratory beers at the “finish”
All in all, it was a great week and one I’ll never forget. It was uplifting from a personal perspective in terms of individual achievement but to do so as a member of a vibrant and supportive community is very special indeed. I rediscovered my love for running and long solo runs in particular. There is always the risk once the world returns to “normal” that finding the time and energy may prove again difficult, but for now thanks to Centurion One Community I can keep moving towards my 100% fitness with the sun on my face.
It sounds cliché, but the one lasting takeaway from this whole experience is to never take anything for granted. Not your freedom, not your health, not your loved ones, or a supportive community. In that sense, I feel we managed to turn what was potentially the worst of times into the best of times, even if only for a fleeting week or so.
Indeed, the entire event was an abject lesson in how to make the most of a bad situation, to look ahead to what can be gained rather than dwelling on what’s been lost. As in ultrarunning, so in life.