I distinctly remember lying in bed one night about 6 years ago reading a copy of a running magazine I’d borrowed from a friend as there was a curious feature tucked away on the front cover. I wasn’t even particularly into running back then but, on this small part of the front cover they claimed to have a race report from a 100 mile race that had just happened. 100 miles? Was this a typo? I completely genuinely 100% thought this was an April fool, a wind up, nobody could run further than a marathon and survive, what was going on? So late at night I turned to Twitter and typed in Centurion Running and sure enough, there were more photos and names of these seemingly ordinary people achieving something that I couldn’t even begin to comprehend. Ever since that moment I’ve been fascinated by the notion of how far can we push ourselves and set many challenges to take my own body to the physical and mental limits.
The past 6 months has been totally focused on marathon specific training, I’d put in some high mileage weeks, but very few back to back long runs or anything over marathon training distances. So standing on the start line I had very little idea as to what was going to pan out ahead. All I knew was it was going to be absolutely baking hot and while it was a lovely temperature to run in, the fact we’d be out for hours with little in the way of shade was troubling. The thing with running these ultra long distances is that so much of it is mental and all you need is for one chink in your armour to open up and you’re done.
313 from the 375 entrants made it to the start line in Richmond and at 10am James Elson sounded the hooter for the race to get underway.
Having run parts of the route a few times in training and in the 2017 race I knew there was a gate about 500m in, that only one person can get through at a time. So made a quick get away. It is amazing how you get worried about losing 30 seconds at a gate, while knowing you’re going to be out running for at least 20 hours.. I don’t think the enormity ever sets in for me about the what lies ahead!
The first check point was Walton on Thames at mile 12, where I arrived at 1h:35m, a steady pace and felt good and in control. The volunteers sprung into action, the water bottles were refilled and I ate some very juicy pineapple and watermelon. Perfect refreshing fuel as the day was warming up!
The runners had spread out by now and with no one really around I stopped and found my iPod, as I’d been saving last weeks Marathon Talk up to listen to on the run. So as Martin and Tom did their thing, lifting my spirits, the sun beat down, we headed on in to Staines.
When you get to Staines Bridge (mile 20) you take a sharp right to go up and over it and as I was mid turn, I felt a sharp shooting pain in my right knee. There were a few swear words shouted and I limped up the stairs and walked it out over the bridge and down to the other side, but with each corner I got to, the pain quickly returned.
I knew the Wraysbury aid station was just ahead, so wanted to run it in and if it persisted then I’d get help. Running in a straight line felt totally fine and by the time I’d reached the aid station I’d forgotten about it. It seemed to be only when turning corners sharp or walking. So there was only one thing for it, no corners and no stopping!
It was nice to finally meet Cat Simpson on the run and we chatted for a bit up between Dorney and Cookham, then later heard the sad news that she had to drop out with an injury she’d sustained in a cycling accident the week prior. Such as inspirational runner, she’ll be back soon!
Dorney (30.5 miles) - I loved the music and Cookham (38 miles), genius with the ice lollies and hosepipe shower! These volunteers sure do know how to put on an aid station.
The heat had really started to take it’s toll by now and while I was eating and drinking ok, the chairs and shade at Hurley (44 miles) provided some much needed relief from the sun. A nauseous feeling had started to take over and I couldn’t make myself get up and out of that chair. I tried a few times as the clock ticked away, 10 minutes I’d been there, then 15, 20, 25 and still no sign of getting away. After a quick pep talk from one amazing lady volunteer there (who was about to do UTMB! Respect!) I agreed to leave, with a bowl of snacks in hand to revive myself slowly as I walked on.
I was being passed by so many runners, but as always happens, everyone would give a quick, ‘you alright?’ as they went past. As I began to perk up a bit, I simply concentrated on the next 7 miles to Henley because if I made it there, I knew there would be a hot meal, my drop box with fresh clothes and more enthusiastic volunteers that could use their magic powers to get me up and running again.
I was just focussing on each mile at a time, each tree in the distance, each landmark to aim for. Breaking it down, giving myself goals to aim for and achieve. If you ever think of the enormity of what lies ahead it will break you.. it wants you to fail, you need to run smart and out do those demons.
The stretch up to Henley (51 mile checkpoint) was the hardest of the whole race for me, there was little shade, I felt myself being cooked in the sun as every last ounce of energy was being evaporated from my already drained body. Hobbling along I had a pain in my stomach and knew I had about 10 seconds to find a hidden bush to go to the toilet. Apologies to the couple of runners who had to witness my shorts round my ankles, but hey.. we’ve all been there at some point! I felt a lot better after that, but still wanted to keep well within my comfort zone to ensure I got to Henley. There were boats going up and down the river, people sipping champagne, enjoying their bank holiday weekend in the sun, no doubt looking over and thinking why are that lot running in this heat.. probably completely oblivious we still had 50+ miles to go on this crazy trip.
I walked the last 4ish km into Henley, it’s was as fast as I could go. All I could think about was some shade, a cold glass of water and some pasta. As I sat down the volunteers descended like a Formula 1 pit crew. I had pasta, drinks, drop bag and snacks all within a minute, just amazing. Looking round there was a real scene of devastation, the heat was ending so many peoples races right before my eyes. I could hear people being sick every few minutes.. a scene of goals being shattered and dreams being taken away.
There wasn’t time to dwell and as I left I probably felt the best I’d felt all day. Everything was fine and I picked up the pace with the km splits all appearing in the 5’s. Next stop was Reading!
Darkness was setting in as I left Reading, 58 miles done and 42 to go. I knew my Dad would be at Pangbourne, so the spirits were up and everything was back on track. Coming into the car park, my Dad was waiting and he’d bought some snacks and drinks. I downed a bottle of squash and within 2 minutes I knew something was very wrong. Going from feeling great to nauseous so quickly was terrible. What had I done?! It took about 20 minutes sitting in the boot of the car before the orange squash came back up again all over the car park. About 6 big chunders of pure liquid giving the tarmac a good wash! Thank you so much to the kind lady in the car next door who gave me a bottle of water to rehydrate with. That sick had cost me about 30 minutes and shattered my self confidence.
I only stayed at Whitchurch for a couple of minutes to check in, then it was onto the ‘hilly’ wooded section heading to Goring. I had to take the steps one at a time with my knee still playing up, luckily there was a rail there to help me get down. Sick and limping along how was I going to be able to cover off the remaining 30 miles?
Well getting cheesy beans in Streatley (71 miles) certainly helped! Whoever came up with that idea is a genius! It was the first time in a very long time that I began to feel human again. It was starting to get pretty chilly by that point so I switched into my long sleeved top and got back on the road.
I have no recollection of Wallingford, I must have only been there for a few minutes to top up the bottles and keep the momentum going. I do remember coming face to face with a head of about 20 cows that suddenly appeared out of the darkness. They didn’t seam bothered at all as I crept past, such friendly animals. Sitting in Clifton Hampden I kept drifting off to sleep, it was 5am, the birds had started their morning song and all I could think about was sleep and just wanting to curl up into a little ball and take myself away from all the pain I was feeling.
By this stage I’d resigned myself to walking the final 15 miles. I had nothing left to give. My knee was hurting at every change of elevation or turn, I could feel myself drifting off to sleep while walking, my feet were soaked from all the morning dew, my appetite was zero and was simply surviving on grapes and water.
Coming into Abingdon at 91 miles I must have looked a complete mess. Having dodged about 20 geese with their young just before, I’d just had enough. I’d have given anything for this to be done.
However ultra running is a quirky game, as the sun came up, it bought life and energy into a new day plus that energy seemed to filter through to my legs as well, how I have no idea, but I wasn’t going to think about it just then.. I managed to get the legs turning over and Oxford was slowly coming into sight.
It was so nice to meet a friend I met earlier in the year in Thailand, Sean, waiting to guide me through the last few kms. He just about kept up! haha.
When you get to about 500m to go you get a glimpse of the blue centurion inflatable finish line on your left. It catches you by surprise, the reality suddenly hits that this crazy race is actually going to be finished. All the pain and suffering will all be worth it. You then get about a minute to compose yourself, take some deep breaths, as you run behind the hedge before tuning into the cricket ground. Running over that manicured outfield felt absolutely amazing. More tears building up with every step, then silence…
It was done, I could stop, I could let out every element of doubt that had crept in over the previous 23 hours. I took on the Thames Path and somehow and I really don’t know how, managed to come out the winner.
22:42:18 was the time. 56th place and a PB by 16 minutes.
Thanks to Stuart for the sweaty hug and presenting me with my buckle and Stuart March for taking all the finish line photos.
The toughest Thames Path 100 came to an end. 55% finish rate says just how tough the conditions were out there, but I know ultra runners are tough and those that didn’t make it to Oxford will be back to conquer the distance another day.
A huge well done to my girlfriend and all round inspirational tough cookie Sarah who came over the line in 26:06, hand in hand with one of the best runners I know, Vickie. You girls are achieving some ridiculous things right now and I’m so proud to follow along.
The volunteers, the organisers, the whole centurion running community, absolutely faultless as always. Exceptional and I can’t thank you all enough.
Finally if you’ve made it this far, thank you for all the support on social media, having people around the world routing for you and sending messages of support is surreal, but amazingly awesome. You lot make me achieve and spur me on and I can’t thank you enough.
The North Downs Way 100 mile is next, August bank holiday here we come!
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