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?! :)