Thames Path 100 – April 2016

For some reason, I’ve delayed writing this report.  Usually I try to get it all out of my brain within a week, but it’s now about 2 weeks after the race, and although I’ve been busy (my eldest’s GCSE’s are imminent) I’m not really sure why I’ve not been too keen to sit and write for hours on end.

I suspect, being really honest, that I’m not sure what my motivation was for doing the race…it started initially that I would accompany two members of my running club around their first 100 miler.  As it turned out, one  was injured and the other trained so hard that he probably could have carried me around on his back.

Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself….

Take yourself back to June 2015,  the end of the Thames Ring 250,  (well, the point at which I ended anyway, rather than the official end which was about another 80 miles or so further on.)  I was pretty buggered at the end, and decided that 2016 would be a much more sociable running year, rather than going for these massive races on my own.  Hence, when a couple of friends suggested how much they would like to complete a 100 mile race, it seemed a good way to still run a lot, but in company!

Both runners, Pam and John, were accomplished runners, having completed 50 miles before, so the step up to 100 miles wasn’t too ambitious (in my misguided eyes).  Plus, all three of us cover the “running spectrum” if I can call it that…

John is the (slightly geeky) Labrador puppy of running (I think I’ve said that before!)  He is 10 years younger than me (see…there’s my excuse out already!) and has only been running for 2 or three years, but has embraced, it showing his huge enthusiasm & talent.  With a marathon PB of about 3.20, he is a superb runner and after an initial taste of ultras at a local 50 miler, he has realised that days of running slowly, eating constantly, is far more fun that running quickly.

Pam is the classic, slightly older lady (am I allowed to say that?) that suddenly realises she can run and run and run, and when everyone around her is slowing down she can maintain the same steady pace.  She doesn’t believe it but she has some awesome endurance (as I believe more mature women generally have) but she has to battle with her head telling her silly things while she is running (i.e. that she is going to miss the next cut-off, or she is too tired to finish).

And me?  Somewhere in the middle I guess.  I can run a bit, eat a lot, then run a bit more slowly, and carry on to the end.  I don’t have Pam’s endurance, or Johns legs…but I’m pretty stubborn and I don’t like to stop.

The three of us have been working towards TP100 since about last September, and have run together a lot .  It’s good fun, running with other people, having spent the last few years generally running on my own.  A couple from the running club had agreed to crew us (Mark and Sharon are wonderful wonderful people, but quite mad) which would make the logistics of getting to & from the race much easier, as well as giving us much-needed TLC during it.

John trained unbelievably hard for the race, and stuck to his training plan rigidly.  This meant lots of back-to-back runs on Saturday and Sunday, usually over 20 miles each.  Often this meant him getting up at 4am on Saturday so he could get his run done early, and then posting all about it on Facebook so the rest of us mortals could read about his impressive exploits over breakfast.  It was truly inspiring and massively annoying.  This is a picture of his training plan, which I think he was following since November.

 

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This is his training plan, in miles…..madness!

 

 

The three of us did the Thames Trot 50 mile race in February (see the race report HERE), and did a long night run together, to prepare them for the 2am “it’ll never get light again” moment.  This consisted of setting off at about 10pm, running 40 miles through the night, with the aim of meeting our running club’s Sunday morning run, and doing the last ten miles with them.  Pam and I had completed a smaller version of this about a month before, starting at 3.30am, and that had gone well, so I didn’t expect any problems with extending the distance.  Unfortunately, on the longer night run, Pam ran with us for the first 44 miles, but realised at that point she was hurting far more than she should.  To her credit, she was still running, and somehow holding it together, but when we stopped to join the club run, she quite rightly took the decision to stop and it turned out she was nurturing a couple of small but very painful injuries that the night run had made much worse.  Her physio was prescribing some proper rest, so unfortunately she was out of the TP100.  I’m thankful to say she is recovering, and has another 100 miler booked for the summer, which she will complete!!

This put me in a bit of a quandary.  My TP100 race plan had been to accompany Pam the whole way, not really worrying about my race, but making sure that Pam finished within the cut-off.  Now, without Pam, I had no excuse not to push for a decent time (apart from a lack of training) and it seemed rude not to take advantage of having a crew by running with as little kit as possible.

So, against my better ‘slow is nice’ judgement, I decided to push hard for the first half, aiming to get to the aid station at mile 51 in about nine and a half hours, and then seeing how much pace I could maintain for the second half.  To recap about the previous year, I completed the race in about 22.5 hours, with massive blisters (where my shoes magically developed some rips in the fabric, which meant I had two 30 minute stops at miles 51 and 85 to try to repair my feet)) and carrying everything I expected to need in the TR250 – i.e. I would only use the aid stations for water, I was carrying everything else (clothes, food, medical supplies, flasks for hot food, kitchen sink, you name it, I carried it).  The race report is HERE, but don’t read it as it wasn’t nice or pretty.

This year would be different, I decided.  I would glide like a fairy over the ground, with literally no kit other than the mandatory kit that the very excellent Centurion Running insist upon, and not suffer blisters or 30 minute stops.  I would finish gracefully, under 22 hours, smiling, and smoking a slim Panatella cigar.

So, let’s get to the day itself (but well done for reading this far, you definitely deserve a star).

We set off from the deepest corner of Kent at about 6.30am, just about managing  to fit all of my crap in the boot…although I wasn’t carrying it with me this time, I was making sure it was with the support crew if I needed it.  John was clearly a little nervous in the car, I was slightly more relaxed (and tired) so managed a bit of sleep on the way.  Mark and Sharon expertly dropped us at the start and zoomed off to park the car, while John and I got registered.  At the time (about 8.30am) reception was nice and clear, with just a few people making their nests in the corridors.  Kit check and the various paperwork bits went smoothly, John being particularly taken with the tattooed and pierced young lady that gave him his number.

With that quickly out of the way (why can’t every race HQ be as organised as Centurion??) we dipped out and headed to McDonald’s for some slimy porridge for John.  I’ve seen more appetising frog-spawn, but he ate the lot.

Then back to the car, to get changed and organise our kit.  It was great to have a bit of time to do this away from the hubbub of the race HQ, and although the parking cost Mark £6, as he kept mentioning for some reason, it was money (sort-of) well spent.  John and I talked Mark & Sharon through the kit that we would be leaving in the car, and it felt pretty organised really.  I should say that our team was named “Team Lucky Gonk” by Mark & Sharon and there were notices of this in the car windows….but as I refused to use the name (very 80’s, I thought) that’s the last you’ll hear of it.20160430_084002

So, we’re back at the start, standing in what appeared to be blue sky and decent sunshine, after months of crap weather.  The weather forecast had predicted rain showers, but that was changing daily as the race neared.  The only consistent thing was the prediction of a cold cold night.  It turned out to be truer than I expected!!

The sign of an organised person, I sometimes think, isn’t that nothing goes wrong…but that when something does (inevitably) go wrong, it can be dealt with calmly.  Thus, when I switched my garmin on and the battery was flat, I didn’t waste time fretting and gnashing my teeth, but simply, took the battery pack I’d packed for the halfway point to recharge my watch (to make sure it lasted the full 100 miles) and started charging before I’d even began running.  Without question, the best thing about the Garmin 310xt, is the ability to charge it ‘on the go’ so it still records data while charging.  Thus, within about an hour or two of the race starting I was back up to about 90% charge, and still had all the splits of my impressive (not) first few miles.

At the start there was a few nervous looking people around, and a lot more spectators than I remember from last year.  There was the usual massive variety of packs being worn, from the absurdly large to the impossible tiny.  This year, however, I was wearing the string bikini of rucksacks, rather than the full length fur coat that I normally carry around with me (yes, OK, my metaphors are slightly mixed, but it makes sense to me!).  One guy had a pair of really thick gloves (think Arctic here!) on the outside webbing of his pack, he was clearly expecting some cold weather!!

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Me, Sharon and Mark, and John….team Lucky Gonk

There was a bit of pre-race instructions, and then we were off.  As always, a slight sense of the surreal, to think that we would now be running for the next 24 hours (or thereabouts), but the sun was out, the river was calm, and there was a lovely sense of community with a few hundred people setting off on an adventure.

John, Mark, Sharon and I had met the previous week to discuss arrangements and timings of the race, and what the support crew would need to do and when.  As John was going to be steaming ahead on his magic legs, we planned his first 25-odd miles at about 10 minutes per mile, which is a really steady pace for the start of a 100 mile run.  My pace was going to be rather more sedate later on, but I fancied I could keep up with him for the first marathon if I was lucky.

As it turned out, after the first couple of slow miles while the runners thinned out a bit, John and I kept up a pretty consistent 9.30 minutes per mile for the first 26.  John was running easily, but was worried this was too fast for the start.  I was thinking the same but felt good and was enjoying chatting to John and sharing in his adventure of his first ‘proper’ ultra.  We had a bit to eat and a short walk at about mile 12, but it was a lovely day and life was good.

Mark and Sharon met us at mile 25, and I think they fed John, but I was feeling good so didn’t want anything at that stage.  We passed the first marathon in about 4 hours 12 mins, which felt great and comfortable.  Now the challenge was to complete the next marathon in about 4.5- 5 hours!

Shortly after this point, John entered what shall be known as his “I’ve-run-30-miles-I-need-a-poo” stage.  It turns out that John, masterful and speedy runner, generally (always) needs a poo after about 30 miles of running.  On the drive home, where he admitted this character trait to us all, he explained that it had become a regular thing with long runs.  Now, I hear you say, that’s fine, everyone needs the toilet occasionally, and it is fine.  Obviously, though, it is useful to be aware of this and plan where you are soon going to be at an aid-station with a toilet.  It’s not so good to be needing the toilet rather urgently, with an aid-station a mile or two ahead, and lots of runners following along behind.

Did I mention the laminate I lovingly created for John??  Being the slightly-anal obsessive that I can be, I’d made us both a little credit card sized laminate that showed where we were meeting the crew and where the aid stations were.  Naturally, John turned to me after about mile 1 and said he’d dropped his – d’oh!  I, luckily, am not quite so butter-fingered as him, so I was able to tell him that I wasn’t sure that the next aid station at mile 30.5 had a toilet (in fact it did, but no-ones perfect!)  So John had to make a quick exit from the route to a nearby clump of sizeable trees and bushes, to help the local ecosystem with some much-needed fertiliser.

Why am I telling you this?  Two reasons.  The first, most obviously, is that I can embarrass John by recording forever  on the interweb his misfortune on having an enforced ‘al fresco’ poo.  Not a great reason, to be fair, as I have a similar problem far too frequently.

The second reason, however, is far far more important.  You see, the first point of the race that our times would be recorded was at this forth-coming aid-station, and hence which ever of us that got there first would record the faster time for this beginning stretch.  Anyone tracking us (I’m imagining a proportion of our running club) would realise that I had got there first, and that I was clearly not the slightly-old pedestrian that I feel sometimes.  So, with that in mind, I watched John go off to relieve himself and pushed on to record the fastest time over 30.5 miles of the two of us.

Bob – 5 hours 01 min 41 seconds (71st place of 295 starters)

John – 5 hours 02 min  55 seconds (74th Position)

There you have it.  Facebook must have been ablaze with the toxic shock of Bob beating John over any distance, even if it was only 1 minute 14 seconds (incidentally, that’s a really really quick poo, John, well done).

John caught me up shortly after, of course, and the natural order of the world was restored.  It was fun for a while though.  Unfortunately, John began to feel a bit nauseous, although he wasn’t sure why.  He manfully struggled through it, knowing we were meeting the support crew at mile 35 which would mean he could get a little rest and something to help with his stomach.  Mark and Sharon were ready, as always, and quickly had him eating some ginger biscuits to try to relieve the symptoms.  I saw he was in good hands, and carried on slowly.  I was feeling surprisingly good at this stage, although I was starting to tire and John (although feeling slightly rough) was running much more smoothly at this stage.

It was strange to be running on my own, but I quickly got chatting to some of the other runners around me and kept going.  I was not eating enough at this stage, which was pretty daft looking back, but I simply didn’t feel I needed it.  The weather was still blue sky and sunny, and really quite warm, but following my experience at the Thames Ring (where I drank lots of water but wasn’t able to absorb it, so basically had a sack of water sloshing around inside me) I was taking fairly small sips of water about every 10 minutes.

I remember approaching an ice cream van at some point, and as I ran towards it I thought how nice it would be to stop and have a nice cool ice cream.  Bizarrely, about 2 feet beyond the ice cream van, a wind appeared from nowhere and blasted me with cold air and rain for just a couple of minutes, before completely disappearing and blue sky appearing once again.  It was the oddest thing.

By the time I’d got to mile 46, I was suffering for my earlier pace.  My 10minute running, 2 minute walking regime had deteriorated to more of a 5/2, and then to a run 100 steps, walk 100 steps.  I was still ahead of my expected pace and I could feel that I was gently running out of steam, but to be fair I had pushed a hard pace for a long way and I was only 5 miles short of the aid station that would mean a change of shoes, something hot to eat, and most importantly a sit down.

It was at this point John caught up with me, and showed his huge amount of training and talent by skipping past me and looking very fresh.  He said he was running 2 miles before walking 2 minutes, which was a really sensible plan.  This was the last point I saw him, and he looked very strong.

A rather slow few miles later I got to the 51 mile aid station, where Sharon had some hot noodles for me and Mark helped change my shoes and socks.  I decided not to wear my waterproof socks for the second half of the race, as I clearly had not needed to wear them for the first half, and my feet had been absolutely sweltering in them, with my normal two pairs of socks underneath. (Yes yes, I know, three pairs of socks is a little excessive, but in my defence I’ve never had any problems with my feet, and it works for me!)

I didn’t stick around long here, as the support crew had everything organised so well.  I left in a bit of a hurry, with a cup full of noodles, clean shoes and socks, and a bit of energy.  It was now about 7.30 pm, and although it was still an hour or so before it would get dark, the night was looming ahead of me as a long hard stretch.

Mile 51 aid station arrival:

John –  9 hours 06 mins 55 seconds

Bob – 9 hours 23 mins 28 seconds

It was from here that the miles all seemed to blend together.  Usually I make an effort to remember how I feel at various times, but perhaps because I was tired or because I wasn’t properly motivated, I was simply trying to eat up the miles and not think too much.  I remember vividly getting to one aid station where I’d also arranged to meet the crew, and Sharon had walked out to meet me (which was lovely) and all I could do was tell her how shit this was, and I didn’t know why I did it to myself.  I’ve definitely gone through rough patches before (in every race, like everyone else) but I really meant it that time!

I remember running through endless fields, and getting rained / hailed / snowed (??) by very short sharp showers.  It was the oddest thing, as by the third time it happened I knew it was going to pass quickly, and didn’t bother trying to cover up.  I’ve never known weather like it (or perhaps I’ve just never been outside for it!).

As it was getting dark, I got chatting to the first of a few memorable people, that made the run much more fun for me.  I was chatting with him (no, I didn’t find out his name) and I was mentioning that I’d run this route on the Thames Trot earlier in the year, and it was a massive mud-fest…absolutely horrible.  He said that he’d done the race too, and from what I’d said he guessed that he’d read my blog on it…yes, it’s true, he was someone who had read one of these race reports that I churn out (for my amusement) and I was momentarily flummoxed by that.  I don’t think I’ve ever met someone that’s read my rather sad running blog that I didn’t know before.  (Note to readers, this could be you next time!  If you are ever running anywhere and come across a particularly average runner, check they are not me…if it’s me, you will get your own very special mention!  Try to tell me your name though, that will help.)  I chatted with nameless runner for (I think) quite a while, and it rather helped pass the time as he’d done some of the same races I had.

As it got darker and darker, I could feel the temperature dropping steadily.  I had a thick running top on, as well as my normal thin one that I’d been wearing all day and my running waterproof, that usually keeps me very warm indeed.  I had a warm beanie hat and gloves and was moving briskly (which normally means that I’m far too hot), so I  was ready for cold temperatures.  I just wasn’t ready for really cold temperatures.

Some miles later I’d put on some running tights that I’d thankfully given the crew ‘just in case of emergency’, and they helped keep my legs warmer, but I could still feel pretty much every extremity (hands, feet, lips) getting really cold.  I’ve done (I think) at least 9 or 10 runs through the night, both in races and training, and I have never got that cold, thankfully.  I was drinking warm tea at every possible opportunity, although I wasn’t eating enough (still).  It got to the point in the early hours of the morning I simply got anything else I’d brought – a pair of waterproof trousers – and put them on, and ended up wearing thick socks on my hands as my gloves weren’t coping and my hands kept going numb.  I don’t think I’d have coped without Mark and Sharon meeting me every few miles and giving me access to all my spare clothing.

I hit somewhere about mile 71 aid station after 14.5 hours.  It was about half-past midnight and I was realising that it was going to be a long cold night.  John had gone through this point about an hour ahead, and was going well (so Mark and Sharon said).  Mark was going to run with him from mile 77, to give him a strong push for the last 20 miles or so, which was great.  Sharon was going to have the unenviable task of trying to get forwards and backwards to look after both runners, which she did amazingly well.

Sometime in the early hours (it was all a bit of a blur by then) I met an American who was flying back to Houston at 4pm that afternoon.  It made for amusing conversation to hear his thoughts on the race at that stage, but he couldn’t slow down or he’d miss his flight.  The terrain had gone from hard trail, with numerous trip-hazard tree roots, to the occasional impassable mud bath, and I took a proper tumble in one of them…a full ‘both-feet-immersed-in liquefied-mud-and sitting-in-it-too’, that prompted most people that I chatted to, to comment on why I was covered in mud.

I remember the aid station at mile 77, where there was a guy wrapped up in a sleeping bag in front of a gas fire, clearly very cold indeed.  It really brought it home how lucky I was to have so much clothing and a crew looking after me.

At about 3am, I teamed up with a lady that I chatted to for hours (but naturally, never got her name).  Her husband had already finished (I think he came second male, in an amazing 17 hours) and so he was tucked up in bed, nice and warm, while she was still out in the freezing cold, slogging away.  I won’t deny that she was feeling a bit pissed off at life in general, but we kept each other amused for a few hours, talking about anything and everything (from kids, to the American  elections, to life in general).

At about 4am, we climbed a hill, away from the river, to get to an aid station (at about mile 85), cold, tired, pissed off, remarking that there was still no light in the sky or birds starting to sing, which usually suggest that dawn is coming.  Once inside the light, warm hall, Sharon fussed around me, bless her, and I got yet another cup of tea.  She scolded me to eat and I tried (and failed) to get something down me.  The aid station was warm and light though, and there were clearly a few runners suffering in there.

We left that aid station a couple of minutes later, my nameless lady and I, and as we came down the same hill, to the Thames Path, we could both feel the cold pressing down on us with every step.  On the rather more positive side, we both remarked that we could hear the birds singing (which we’d missed 10 minutes previously apparently) and that meant dawn was not far away.

The river and fields were covered in a thick fog, and our torches were only penetrating about 3 feet in front.  All you could do was keep your eyes on the rough ground ahead and keep putting one foot in front of the other.  It was a long night.

As the sun came up, the fog lifted slightly and showed the most picturesque landscape, covered with mist and glistening with dew.  Naturally I was far to grumpy to take a picture, but it was lovely.  The sun rose, as it always does, and everything looked much more positive in the light of the new day.

My companion’s sister and brother-in-law walked out to meet her at about 5.30am, which I thought was great, and I sadly had to leave her behind as the new light and finish line beckoned.  I got to the aid station at mile 91 at about 6am, and met up with Sharon for the last time.  She had done an amazing job keeping up with John and I, and had kept positive and cheerful throughout what must have been a long, cold and boring night.  Mark had run with John as planned, and clearly the crew had been indispensable throughout!  John was still doing well, although had got a little lost at one point and had lost about 30 minutes.  He was running well.

I’d like to say I also galloped the last 9 miles to finish before 8am, which would have brought me in under 22 hours, but unfortunately I whimpered to a finish at about 8.12am  Mark (who’d finished with John about 50 minutes before) had run back down the course to meet me, and was a lovely sight to see, and realise it wasn’t far to go.  I managed a run for the last few hundred yards, over a rather pleasant green field and under a finish line inflatable arch.  A couple of pictures (in  which I look surprisingly well) and a buckle, and then it was time to roll in the grass like a dog.  If you ever want to relieve your stiff achy body, perhaps after a long aeroplane trip or a 100 mile run, just roll around in the grass.  Dogs know what they’re doing.

John had finished in 21 hours 21 mins (54th), and was sitting in a chair looking pleased with himself.  I’d finished in 22 hours 12 mins (71st place), and was rolling and stretching in the grass.  I think that sums us both up.

We didn’t hang around (apart from having some excellent chilli), I think all of us were tired and wanted to get home as quickly as possible.  The journey home was very memorable (see the note above about Johns poo-ing habits) and then we were home and it was all over!

So, thoughts….

Massive thanks to Sharon and Mark for the support.  They were simply awesome, and had anything and everything we wanted and needed before we asked.  A master-class in how to support runners.  Thanks guys.

John, what  a runner!  21 hours 21 mins for his first 100 miler…which surely means he can break 21 hours in the next one if he doesn’t get lost (like a plonker).  Then what is he capable of!

Me?  Hmm, it wasn’t my favourite run, and I’m pretty sure I’d not have finished if I hadn’t had a crew with extra clothing.  However, I didn’t train with any real purpose for this race (my ‘A’ race is the Lakeland 50 in July) so apart from running a lot, my preparation was pretty poor.  My head was in a funny place as well, not really committed to the level of suffering that would be needed, as I’d done the race before and there wasn’t any real challenge for me.  Note to self, my motivation comes from the variety of races I do, and from the not knowing what to expect in a new race.  When I’ve done it before it all seems a bit boring & hard work.

Massive thanks to all the volunteers and the organisers.  Centurion are definitely the premier race organisers for ‘safe’ 100 mile runs.  The aid stations were well stocked and frequent.  I really cannot fault them at all.

And what else?  Well 207 people finished out of 295 that started, about a 70% finish rate.  But an awful lot of people dropped during the night, as I’d expect.  If anyone reading this was in that situation, don’t beat yourself up over it…it was a tough tough night.

And what now?  Well, as I said, a race in the Lake District in July…and then maybe something later in the year.  John has discovered that no-one has set a speed record for completing the North Downs Way, 150 miles of hills, so he thinks it would be great to do that!!  I’m not so sure.

Sometimes I think we’re all mad.

 

 

 

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One comment

  1. Hi Bob, I’m the “first of a few memorable people” who you mention in your excellent race report. Thanks for letting me tag along with you for a few miles, you were brilliant company and your blog is a great source of inspiration……yes, there are people out there who read your ramblings! Cheers for the “special mention” – I’ve even mentioned your blog to a couple of people, so if your hit rate increases by 1 or 2, that’ll be my fault. Will look out for you at future events, best of luck at Lakeland! The nameless runner a.k.a Frank.

    Like

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