Written by Julian Desai - https://100metresto100miles.wordpress.com
I was a decent sprinter at school, my claim to fame was winning the 100m on sports day at age 13 in 1980 beating everyone in my year and the year above. However, I was awful at anything further than 400m and absolutely hated cross country. I started running to keep fit much later and ran my first half marathon in 1999 and my first marathon in 2001.
However, my journey to my first 100 miler really started about three years ago. Some work colleagues and I had decided to do the Caledonian Challenge in June 2013 – a 54 mile charity walk along the West Highland Way in Scotland.
So one bright, sunny Sunday morning in May 2013 I found myself walking along the Grand Union Canal in West London, putting in some training. I had just passed under the A40 heading towards Bulls Bridge when I saw two people walking along the tow path towards me, as they got closer I noticed one had a race number on his shorts ‘359’. I said good morning as we passed and wondered what was going on. About half an hour later I passed another guy shuffling along and then gradually more runners / walkers, some looking very worse for wear. I learned that they were doing a race called ‘GUCR’ and had started running in Birmingham the morning before and were due to finish in Paddington! Wow!
I found it utterly amazing that anyone would attempt a run like this and so when I got home after my piffling 23 mile training walk I got straight on the internet and started reading about the Grand Union Canal Race and the world of ultra-marathons. Some of the people I cheered on that day have very familiar names to me now and I realised that the first two guys I had passed were the eventual winner of the race, James Elson and his pacer – I was truly inspired.
The morning after the Caledonian Challenge I sat with my six team mates at Edinburgh airport and listened as they all said never again – I smiled to myself and thought I fancy some more of this but why walk if you can run!
I started reading the usual ultra running books, also Paul Ali’s Ultra Tales, many other blogs – thank you all so much – and started listening to ultra running podcasts like Talk Ultra, URP and Trail Runner Nation during training runs and while commuting to work. I really look forward to my long Sunday morning run with a new Talk Ultra episode to listen to and have learned loads from Ian Corless, Karl “a hundred miles is not that far” Meltzer and their guests. And so my goal of running a hundred miles slowly emerged.
Along with some shorter races I entered the 100km Race to the Stones in 2014 and another four ultras in 2015 including my first Centurion Event the NDW50. It meant a lot to me to be presented with my medal at the finish and shake the hand of the man that inspired me to run ultras in the first place – Thank you James Elson, Centurion Running’s Race Director – I’m sure Centurion runners will recognise the coat below!
Finishing the NDW50 2015 and receiving my medal from James Elson
I also found volunteering at SDW100 and A100 in 2015 very useful opportunities to meet and chat to experienced runners and also extremely good fun and highly recommended.
And so I decided that the 2016 Thames Path 100 would be my first attempt at the 100 mile distance and teamed up with my mate Jim Vince to do some recce runs and prepare ourselves by running the SDW50 together three weeks before. At this point I have to say a massive thank you to Jim’s girlfriend Angela Austin who has supported us and helped us all the way on so many runs and races – Angela you are a star – thank you so much!
Jim, Angela and I at the 2016 SDW50
After the SDW50 my right big toe nail was painful and my quads were sore for a few days – not surprising given the lack of hill training, as I only did a couple of 2000ft elevation runs in the weeks before and there was almost 6000ft of climbing at SDW50. However as my main focus was TP100 with less than 2000ft of climbing I wasn’t particularly worried.
The week after SDW50, I did a couple of recovery runs, then the next Monday I got a sore throat which developed into a cold. So I only managed a couple of short runs that week but Jim and I did manage to cycle the last 15 miles of the TP100 from Clifton Hampden to Oxford on the Saturday before as our final recce.
I am so glad we recced the last 60 miles from Marlow to Oxford together over the last few weeks as that gave us so much more confidence during the night and psychologically knowing we weren’t going to get lost was a real comfort. I can only imagine how demoralising it must be to do ‘bonus’ miles when you are struggling on a hundred miler. I’m sure that might push me over the edge to quit.
I still felt a bit under the weather the following week and work was very busy so I did no running at all the week before TP100. Of course the usual phantom niggles appeared – I even took my temperature the night before the race because I felt cold and my wife Jas wasn’t which is normally unheard of. My right big toe nail seemed to recover following SDW50 – that was until I trimmed it the day before TP100 only to send a spurt of liquid out from beneath the toe nail! Err probably should have sorted that out 3 weeks ago! Luckily it did not seem to hurt much so just hoped it would not cause problems over the next 100 miles…..
I had thrown my kit together on the Tuesday before and made a plan to take a 51 mile drop bag, a 71 mile drop bag, a finish bag and a bag for Angela to keep in her car. The problem was I couldn’t decide what kit to put where and I only finally sorted everything out on Friday.
I had the usual kit in my Ultimate Direction SJ race vest, mandatory gear and a bit of food – only a few gels and bars. I didn’t need to eat much of it – it is for emergencies after all and with the very well stocked Centurion aid stations I didn’t need much, but at least I didn’t carry loads of superfluous kit like previous races. I’ve had my UD vest for two years now and it’s great – I prefer having hard bottles on the front as they’re easy to fill and you always know how much liquid is left. Unfortunately the toilet paper and wet wipes I always carry and don’t normally use did get used this time!
The day before the race, my parkrun 100 milestone t-shirt arrived in the post which I took to be a good omen given I had been waiting for it for over 6 months! I set the alarm for 6:40am on Saturday morning but was awake a long time before, a couple of early nights that week helped though. I had no problem keeping awake during the race probably because I gave up coffee the week before and then had more than a few during the race. I got up and had a bagel and honey and a coffee for breakfast. I also made a toasted cheese sandwich and took a banana for the hour before the race.
I took a taxi from home in Harrow to Richmond arriving at the Old Town Hall at 8:30. I met Jim and we picked up our numbers and then went for a coffee at ‘Bills’ just up the road which was well worth it for nice toilets and no queues!
About 9:40am we went down to the start area – it was a gorgeous sunny morning and it was great to see so many runners and supporters milling about. I took a few photos and saw Ilsuk Han who I volunteered with at Bignor Hill Aid Station on the SDW100 last year – we had a quick chat and he wished me luck.
I always wear shorts with pockets as I like to carry a hanky because my nose always runs a lot when I’m running for some reason, also I keep my phone in a back pocket wrapped in a zip lock bag with check point details and distances. I wore a long sleeved top with a t-shirt over the top. I had my Garmin 310XT on my left wrist and a digital watch on my right as I knew the Garmin battery would not last the whole race.
Then it was time for the briefing and we were warned about the cold night to come. There was a count down from 10 and then we were off. Right from start Jim and I planned a run / walk strategy 10 mins run and 1 min walk. This worked really well although we reduced that to 5:1 after 30 miles or so.
It was a lovely jog down the Thames Path and we chatted to a few people as Jim’s NZ flag always attracts a few comments. We met Mark Fox who was on the second leg of the TP100 double, having started Thursday night in Oxford, arrived at 3am last night, had a few hours’ sleep and then set off again for the return leg. Kudos!
It was uneventful up to Aid 1, Walton at Mile 11 which we reached in about 2 hours. I recognised some of the route from the Thames Meander Marathon which I ran in March 2015 where I memorably met and ran most of it with John Turner of ‘Shake Jogle and Roll’ fame. Then we arrived at Kingston bridge which we crossed and made our way up to and past Hampton Court. There was a bit of a queue for water at Aid 1 but not too bad, I filled up my ‘picnic bag’ with grapes, nuts, raisins, piece of cheese sandwich, chocolate, crisps and snaffled the second to last cheese scone which I ate during next few walk breaks.
Somewhere in Chertsey about 17 miles in I had stomach cramps and really needed to find a bush! Going alfresco was another first for me but I think necessary sooner or later if you want to consider yourself a true ultra runner!
It was a bit worrying though as I know diarrhoea can lead to a DNF due to fluid loss and dehydration etc. So I aimed to keep drinking a lot and take plenty of electrolytes.
At Staines about mile 21, I felt more stomach cramps so nipped into a riverside restaurant / pub called Staines Lodge to use the facilities. As I came out there were hail stones so I put on my jacket. Jim was waiting just up the path and we carried on. It stopped raining soon enough and we soon got too hot and stowed our jackets again.
We crossed the M25 and arrived at Aid 2, Wraysbury at Mile 22 in about 4 hours. I filled my bottles and grabbed another picnic – more grapes, cheese, chocolate etc. Ilsuk Han was volunteering and had a quick chat with him told him my stomach was playing up and so got my excuses in early.
We met an experienced runner friend of Jim called Joe Delaney who recommended a 5:1 run / walk strategy which we started to adopt.
Soon we saw Windsor castle and crossed the bridge at Eton. I think it was soon after that Jim started getting cramps in his abductors, I gave him a couple of S-Caps. He realised he had been taking new tabs that were carbohydrate but not electrolyte. We had to keep stopping and Jim told me to carry on but I wanted to wait for him like he had done for me previously, luckily after a while he was ok.
We passed Aid 3, Dorney at mile 30.5 about 5hrs 45mins in, then crossed the M4 and passed by Maidenhead. I still felt rubbish, in fact much worse than on a similar distance on the SDW50.
About a mile or two before Aid 4, Cookham, mile 38, I had stomach cramps again! We were running along a narrow path next to the river and I could not see any convenient places to go but managed to hold on to the aid station which was a marquee adjacent to a boat club. I filled my bottles at the aid station and had some cheese, pineapple and grapes. Jim was with Angela waiting for me a bit further up the path again – what a star! Angela had some chocolate milk which went down well. I think she also gave me one of my black thermal tops here which I tied round my waist.
We passed under the A404 which I recognised and we soon came to Marlow. We had to negotiate a few alley ways which we had not recced before but we had looked at them carefully on the maps etc. We came out of a cemetery next to a church and met Angela. I really felt rubbish and was considering quiting at I stood there watching Jim brush his teeth and set up his watch charging. Now we were in familiar territory as this was where we started our first recce with Eileen Naughton a few weeks before. We carried on to Aid 5, Hurley at mile 44 just past Marlow.
I’m not sure where but I think I must have started to feel a bit better, but still had thoughts of getting to half way and then dropping – 51 miles sounded respectable. But then I started thinking that if I can get to 62miles that would be a new 100km PB. Then if I can get further than that it would be a new farthest run record. Also I kept thinking what will I do if I drop – try and get home somehow on the train but then how would I get my bags? I could drop and help crew Jim but then what if he dropped in the night and they both wanted to go home?
A girl came running up behind and said hello I thought you had a skirt on. I still had my top tied round my waist so said “Sorry to disappoint you!”
Soon we were running into Henley and over the bridge and down to Aid 6 at mile 51 where we arrived in 10hrs and 48 mins. It was 8:45pm still light enough to run without head torches but it was getting dark quickly. Here I got my drop bag and some pasta Bolognese, we found a bench and got ready for the night section. I had decided to wear my Altra Lone Peak 2.5s from the start although I had contemplated starting in Asics 2000 road shoes and swapping to Altras at half way. As it turned out I am happy with my choice. I also wore my usual Smartwool socks with lots of Vaseline on my feet although applied more Vaseline here and changed my socks. I grabbed some gels out of my drop bag, had a coffee and put on my head torch, leggings and thermal top.
Next it was the section through Shiplake including the narrow alley way we missed on the recce, both of us and a few other runners were glad we knew the way! The marshy stretch after Shiplake had dried up a lot too and I was not feeling any worse which was good. It’s funny I have heard ultra runners say sometimes it doesn’t get any worse but this is the first time I have experienced it myself – in fact I felt a bit better if anything.
We crossed Sonning bridge and soon came into Reading and then to Aid 7 at mile 58, after 13 hours at about 11pm. Here you had to go up steps to the aid station which didn’t feel as bad as I expected, in fact it was nice to use different muscles. We didn’t stay long, grabbed some more food and a hot drink. Angela was supposed to meet us outside but was not there, Jim said to me to carry on because it was getting cold standing around so I wandered off expecting him to catch up quickly. In fact it took him a while, apparently Angela had headed back along the path to meet us but somehow missed us. This was a built up area and some ‘clever young man’ was saying have you found anything yet to the runners. I did turn my head torch off though. Jim caught me up after a while – he had missed a bridge to start with but soon realised his mistake.
Reading beer festival was on and it was just after chucking out time so there were a lot of revellers on the path, we had to dodge a few swaying across the path but they gave us no trouble and we were soon out into the countryside again. Although we thought we had a decent buffer against the 28 hour cut off by now and could afford to walk it in if we had to – you never know when some other problem might occur – ultras are about solving problems after all – so we kept up the run / walk 5:1 as much as we could.
We passed through a boatyard gate that looked like it must be the wrong way but isn’t (we went wrong on the recce here) then along to Tilehirst which seemed to take an age. Then turn left up the steps over the railway line and then through a housing estate. Jim had suggested Angela go straight to Goring now for a few hours’ sleep.
Then there was a long section through lots of grassy fields. There was lots of mist and sometimes it was hard to see the way as the light reflected back off the mist, until finally we reached Pangbourne and crossed the bridge to Whitchurch. We had expected the route to take us off the main road, through a churchyard and around back to the main road but the tape was marked straight up the main road so we did as instructed and followed the tape gladly! There was a marshal directing runners up to the Whitchurch Aid Station 8 at 67 miles. Again we didn’t hang around – just a quick cup of tea I think.
The next section took us through Goring gap with a steep decent and ascent and quite an uneven track and so we walked most of it. I kept having recurring thoughts of dropping at various points through the night but they were always tempered by wondering what I would do then and how long I would have to wait around for the death bus and how would I get home and how would I get my bags etc. If you have a friend waiting with a nice warm car it must be much easier to give up and go home so I think the lesson is don’t make it too easy to quit!
As we arrived in Goring we met Angela and proceeded to cross the bridge to Aid 9 at Streatley at mile 71, we were 16:45hrs in by now and it was 2:45am. I had a chat with Sonny Peart who was volunteering and grabbed my drop bag but did not sit down for long. A few runners were sitting around looking a bit worse for wear – it felt like too many were still sitting there as we left – beware of the chair! I took out more gels and put on another thermal top, added some Tailwind to my water and we set off again into the night.
It was quite a drag up to Moulsford and again our recce came in handy as we knew where to go which gave us confidence. We could see lots of stars and it was a very cold and crisp night, although I had five layers on so never really felt cold.
Angela was waiting in Wallingford and we arrived at Aid 10 after 77.5 miles to be greeted by the ever smiling Eileen Naughton who had joined us on our recce from Marlow to Whitchurch a few weeks back. I had a hot drink and a few bits of fruit and cheese. I had been sucking a lot of boiled sweets which were great but my teeth felt very sensitive when I brushed them finally on Sunday afternoon, I don’t think all the sugar did them good. We chatted to Eileen and another nice lady volunteer who saw my bottles were still quite full and told me to drink more – good advice as I seem to forget when it’s cold and I’m tired – thanks.
It started to get light during the next section and it was gorgeous seeing the mist on the river as dawn broke. It had been one of my ambitions to run through the night and experience seeing the sun come up with the boost I had been told that brings – ambition achieved and I agree! As we approached the weir at Benson it was Jim’s turn to have some stomach problems so I walked on ahead. By the time Jim caught me he said he had to run / walk 3 times.
Morning was broken and the sun was shining now which was so good for the spirits. We arrived at Shillingford where we had made another nav error on the recce, proceeding up the road to the roundabout rather than taking the left path just after the ramp up beside the bridge. No problem this time and we went through the alleyways up to the main road and back into the fields.
Next we crossed Days lock, it’s always lovely to hear water rushing over a weir. One of the worst bits because it’s a long drag of similar terrain is the grassy fields up to Clifton Hampden from here. We started to see a few joggers out and about and Angela had walked down to meet us about a mile out from Aid 11, Clifton Hampden at mile 85. A marshal was ensuring runners went over the bridge and up to the Aid station rather than straight down the path to Culham but we knew what to do even though it was annoying to have to divert away from the path. I had a quick cup of tea even though I didn’t feel like it and had to go outside and lay down as I felt light headed. I have had problems before going into a warm building when I’ve been running outside in the cold as it often makes me feel light headed, I’m not sure why, maybe my blood pressure drops when I stop moving combined with low energy levels and the heat I had a gel and some more chocolate milk. I started to think this might be the end of my race but decided to get up and press on regardless. After a while I got back into the zone and we marched to Culham lock where we met Angela again and took off our jackets and night gear. My mind kept wandering to how I was going to get home to London etc. but every time I made a point of pushing those thoughts away and just focusing on finishing the race – I can worry about getting home later.
We had cycled this section the week before and it was quite rough and bumpy in parts. Soon we were approaching Abingdon and there were a few people about including Sir Mathew Pinsent and his family – I said hello and nice to see you Sir! I thought in a way this is my Olympics and the buckle is going to be my gold medal!
I was looking forward to reaching Abingdon and Aid 12, at mile 91. We had been going for 23:25 hours now and it was 9:30 in the morning. I took two orange GU gels from the Aid Station and squeezed them into my bottle and topped with 250ml water. Jim did not seem to be eating much but I know I seem to need to keep taking calories in – I could not stomach the thick GU but shaken up with water I could at least swallow it. Angela was also there and I had more chocolate milk. We headed under the lovely bridge at Abingdon and passed the parkrun course. Then we crossed the lock and found a guy looking a little lost who tagged on to us as we knew we had to negotiate a wet and twisty section through the trees for a while. By now my forefeet felt sore especially my right foot so I was trying to avoid hard ground but it was quite uneven and difficult. It felt like I had bad blisters coming and I thought about some of those photos I’ve seen of people’s skin falling off their feet. Actually they turned out not to be blisters and the next day were not too sore either.
Our pace was slowing now and it was really hard going, I just wanted it to be over. In my head I had written my resignation from ultras speech and had decided that this was going to be my last ultra, definitely, no going back, 100% decision made, final one ever, just get this buckle and retire to parkruns from now on. As usual the next day all this is unravelling – well there is a place at SDW100 with my name on it – we’ll see…
In the final push it’s so annoying when you meet someone coming the other way who says it’s only a mile to the next aid station and it turns out to be 2 miles! Eventually we arrived at Aid 13, Lower Radley mile 95. I had downed my two GUs in water and got two more to keep me going for the final five miles to Oxford. Jim saw a lonely chicken leg and snaffled it which amused me. We were in and out very quickly leaving our new companion sitting down contemplating whether or not to have his feet looked at by the medics.
We trudged on over horribly rough ground – surely we were going to make it now? But I still didn’t want to let myself think that in case a sudden injury occurred etc. Lots of joggers were coming the other way now and then we saw Angela jogging towards us. She had run 5.1 km from the finish so about a parkrun to go. The last few miles were horrible – it felt hot in the sun and my feet were getting more and more sore. Nearly there, nearly there. Just before the end we caught up a guy who was feeling bad and I gave him a couple of S Caps.
Finally we saw the boathouses opposite Queen’s College field and the finish came into view, we rounded the corner and walked up to the arch jogging the final few yards holding hands as we did at the SDW50 – our second joint finish in 3 weeks! We crossed the line in 26:13:12 and were given our buckles and t-shirts followed by a big hug from Nici Griffin – it’s taken me three Centurion finishes to get my first hug from Nici! Finally, a dream which started three years ago was achieved. “A hundred miles is not that far” – yes it is Karl Melzer!
Myself, Angela and Jim at the TP100 finish
156th = out of 207 finishers (297 started): 26hrs 13mins 12secs
A volunteer brought my bag over and told me I had the lightest finish bag! We had photos taken and went over to some shade to lay down. I called my wife Jas and I got something in my eyes which made them water – that’s my story and I’m sticking to it! I had a nice bowl of spicy chilli. After a while we got ready to go, I felt a bit light headed for a minute and thought about waiting a while to recover more but I didn’t want to get stuck so took a lift with Jim and Angela to the X90 bus stop to London about half a mile away on Speedwell Road. The bus came very quickly, it was a bit of a struggle climbing up the steps with my bags, it was a smooth journey and I got off at the Hillingdon stop and hour or so later. I was very glad that Jas offered to pick me up in the car from there and that my youngest son Joe was there to help carry my bags off the bus. It was good to get home.
My legs were pretty sore for a few days after but although I suffered with sore forefeet in last miles and it felt like some blistering was going, in reality I had to pop one blister between my toes and the next day I had no bad pain from blisters. I also maintained my record of never taking any painkillers in a race which I am pleased about.
And so with particular thanks to Jim, Angela, Centurion Running and all the fabulous volunteers I managed to achieve my ambition of running 100 miles. It feels good! Better than winning the 100m – except for the sore legs!
What went well:
Running with a friend is invaluable – thanks Jim!
Recce runs are invaluable particularly night sections
A run / walk strategy from beginning, 10:1 then 5:1 worked well
Knowing some of the volunteers gives you a boost – volunteering yourself is a good way to meet people and learn
Vaseline on my feet, smart wool socks and Altras Lone Peak 2.5 worked well
Don’t make it easy to quit by having a nice warm car on standby to take you home
GU gels mixed with water are easier to swallow
What to do differently next time:
Don’t get a cold two weeks before
Don’t get stomach cramps three times in the first 40 miles
Don’t sort out toe nails the day before