Approximately 09:00 hrs on Sunday 6th May 2018, I was totally broken, physically and mentally, stood in the meadows heading to Clifton Hampden, those meadows that just go one, and on, and on, 10 minutes until cut off, absolutely no sign of the bridge and I knew my race was over. My pacer Ann was still adamant I could make it, “It’s not far” she kept telling me, but I knew it was pointless. I had just been overtaken by two other runners trying hard to make cut off, they were a good 5 minutes ahead of me in the distance and they were also nowhere near the bridge from what I could see so that was it, like the turkey at Christmas, I was done! I called my better half Sam, emotions took over and I told her there and then I wasn’t going to try again, I just knew that 100 miles was one distance too far for me and that was my first and final attempt.
My journey first started in December 2013, my pacer to Clifton Hampden in 2018 the amazing Ann Bath was sat in the bar at the Running Club Christmas party proudly showing off her Centurion Grand Slam buckles. Ann has always amazed me with her incredible endurance and metronomic pace but as she regaled me with her adventures at these four 100 mile Centurion races over the course of 2013, I was totally taken in by it all. Not only did she manage the slam that year, she hadn’t even had to run a 50 miler to qualify and just went for it. She cut it close to the wire on more than one occasion but finished all 4 because the word quit just isn’t in her vocabulary, she was and still is my inspiration. As we sat and talked I kept looking at those gorgeous buckles and just thought to myself that I had to have one and as I wasn’t into mugging women for their valuables I knew the only way I was going to get one was by running a Centurion 100 mile event, and so the quest began.
Having failed miserably in 2018 and swearing I’d never give it another go you’ll not be surprised to know it took me only a couple of weeks to forget everything I said that day and started planning for 2020. I decided that in order to get me ready for the distance I was going to build my endurance by attempting the 50 Slam in 2019, I’d completed a few 50’s so how hard could it be, turns out bloody hard. I ran well in SDW50 and ran out of steam a bit in NDW50 but finished regardless but then came CW50 where the hot weather just did me no favours, I am not a warm weather runner, I went down with a touch of heat exhaustion and pulled my Piriformis into the bargain and dumped out shortly after Swyncombe. A short course of intensive Physio got me onto the start line of Wendover but I was under no illusions that I would complete it and binned it after 2 laps and spent the rest of 2019 trying to recover from the agonising pain in my left butt cheek & leg from the tight Piriformis.
2020 arrived and I wasn’t anywhere near as fit I had planned to be ahead of the 4 months training for Thames Path and I was already starting to worry. Then this strange thing happened, to most people it was an absolute pain in the arse but for me it was a Godsend.
“Covid-19 – LOCKDOWN”
I quickly realised that with lockdown Boris had given me the opportunity to really continue my training and build on my endurance over a longer period of time. Thames Path had been postponed to September and I had so far run every day since the 30th December having done RED January and February. My piriformis was still sore but I was managing it well, I was losing weight and feeling strong so I took the decision to continue my run streak. I decided to not run stupid 30-40 mile days and have no energy for days on end after but instead run a minimum of 6 miles every day and do back to back long runs at the weekends. I jumped at the chance to take part in the 100 mile Centurion One Up week which I completed having run over 80 miles the week before and followed that up with a Virtual West Highland Way, another 95 Miles in 10 days and all of a sudden this weird thing happened, my legs stopped protesting at the amount of mileage I was doing every week, in fact I was really starting to enjoy it. On average I usually run around 1200 miles a year, this year I flew through 1200 miles in mid-June, had shed 12½ Kilo’s and got stronger and stronger, this was going to be my year, I could feel it.
September soon ticked round and races were back on, Centurion seemed to be leading the way in organising races within a Covid secure framework, unlike the usual mass start the they opted to go with a 2 hour rolling start window with runners seeding themselves based on predicted finish times. Faster runners would go off first and slower runners last meaning a good spacing in the field, so I chose my start time of 9am and rocked up a bit early ready to go expecting a number of people to be waiting to go off but actually found the start line pretty empty. I had no drop bags or finish bag, everything I needed was in the crew car so as soon as I collected my tracker I was ready to go, quick check of the watch told me I had 15 minutes till 9am and as I stood there waiting for the clock to tick round I couldn’t stand the excitement any longer so I rocked up to the start, had my temperature taken and I was off, 10 minutes early at 8:50 and my quest to get my hands on one of those awesome buckles was back on.
In 2018 I got caught up in all the excitement of the start, got dragged along with the pack and went out way to fast and due to the extreme heat and my rookie mistake I was cramping up by Walton on Thames. Not this year, I had my GymBoss set to intervals of 5 and 1 (Apologies to those around me if the constant beeping got on your nerves) and off I went Running 5/Walking 1 from the start. No groups of runners around to drag me along at their pace and before I knew it, I was already eating up the miles and feeling really happy with myself. Leading into the race I had been experimenting with lots of different run walk timings and I knew exactly the order I intended to use them, what I wasn’t entirely sure of was how long I’d do each one and intended to change based on how I felt. I’d expected to change from 5/1 to 4/2 after around 2 hours but it felt so comfortable that I kept it up for 4 hours, nailing the pace and running into Staines to pick up my crew for the first time slightly ahead of predicted target feeling really strong and confident. Being local to the area bumping into a few friendly faces along the way of fellow club mates out and about along the Thames enjoying the sunshine really helped too, never underestimate how someone calling your name with some encouragement out of the blue will spur you on.
Getting to Wraysbury was a huge confidence boost, 2 years previously I had almost binned it at this point of the race. I’d been cramping up badly since Walton and took ages getting to Wraysbury as I was struggling to put any kind of running together. Having refused a salt tablet from my mate Greg when the cramp first kicked as I’d never used them before and thought I could walk it off I didn’t refuse a second time when another runner offered me some not long after Chertsey which sorted my cramp out. Now in 2020 I was ensuring I popped an S Cap every couple of hours or so and got to Wraysbury around 15 minutes ahead of schedule. That was the first mental barrier crossed and I pushed on feeling extremely happy with myself knowing that my next target was to hit my first 26.2 miles in under 5½ hours. I’d been playing leap frog all day with Kirsty Jones who as it transpired as we talked was married to Oliver who had very kindly, along with David Field and Drew Sheffield given me a guided tour of Wendover in 2018 the week before the 50. I was way slower than the three of them, but they were absolutely brilliant and made sure I got round without losing sight of them, typical Centurion runners, selfless to the end. Kirsty was being crewed by Oliver so it was great to get some encouragement from the man himself at various crew points as Kirsty and I ran in close together, however after Henley Kirsty was to get away from me as she ran a very strong second half of the race.
Right time to get down to business, my next target was to try and reach Henley without needing a head torch which if I succeeded would mean trimming around an hour off of my 50 mile PB, something I was not entirely sure was a good idea with another 50 to go but seeing as my 50 Mile PB was NDW50 in 2017 and I was much fitter than then and this had none of them pesky hills to contend with I was confident I’d be fine. I continued my walk run strategy and before I knew it, I had flown through Dorney was bang on schedule heading into Cookham and confident I would get to Henley without the need of a head torch. Having gone through Hurley and heading towards Aston I started to hear what sounded like a female singer in the distance. I was trying to figure out where the sound was coming from and decided it must be somewhere near Henley on the fields where they held the Henley 24 relays, which if that was the case meant Henley wasn’t far to go.
Waiting for me at Henley was my first pacer, I had first met Steve on 16th January 2016, I remember it so well. In 2015 whilst nursing a stress fracture of the second Metatarsal I did a Leader in Running Fitness course and had organised a Couch to 5K course which Steve had signed up to, or rather his better half Becky (one of my awesome crew) had signed him up because she wanted him to do it with her. He introduced himself, told me he was only here to give Becky some support, he hated running and would be gone in 2 weeks never to be seen again. So, a few marathons and a couple of Ultra’s later he was now pacing me at Thames Path. He’d never paced before, but I chose him especially for the fact he makes me laugh and we have some great conversations where I mainly call him names and take the piss out of him and I knew that he was going to really pick me up at a time I would be starting to think abut the fact I was only half way through and needed a lift. Having set of from Henley I was trying my best to recall the route through to Reading, I knew I needed to be alert at Shiplake and not take a wrong turn like I did in 2018 and I had it my mind that we went over the railway via those hideous set of steps at the Roebuck Hotel not long after. I kept telling Steve that the railway bridge would be just along this stretch of river, not long now I kept telling him, which I continued to do for around 12 miles much to Steve’s dismay but it became a standing joke as he believed I was making it all up anyway. Steve had a brilliant effect from the off, he had me laughing despite the fact he felt the need to tell how nice the steak dinner and pint of bitter he’d had earlier was but it had unfortunately given him wind and he promptly spent the entire run into Pangbourne parping away and making me laugh, it was exactly what I needed, he was absolutely brilliant and by the time we got to Pangbourne where my next pacer Greg was waiting Steve was a bit sad to be having to stop and wanted to carry on. Never mind we have him signed up for NDW next May, so he’ll get his chance run a full 50.
Greg was originally signed up for Thames Path but had dropped out due to lack of training, he had completed it in under 24 hours in 2018 and remembered the section from Pangbourne well and I knew by this stage I’d need him to guide me through safely as running in the dark when tired is not something I particularly excel at. The section between Whitchurch and Goring, along the hilly trails, full of tree roots and all sorts things just waiting to trip an unsuspecting runner in the dark was my biggest worry. However I needn’t have worried, Greg guided me through calling out every trip hazard and although I was mainly walking through this section for fear of falling down the steeps banks to the river we were still ticking the miles off in good time, I was starting to flag a bit now through sheer tiredness and I was having issues with nausea and an acidic build up at the back of my throat. Consequently, I was struggling to eat and drink anything and spent most of the night with bad hiccups and some dry retching but I pushed on knowing that even if I had to walk the rest of the way that Buckle was mine. Having been timed out at Clifton Hampden last time round I was now on track to get there with time to spare, my confidence was soaring and the closer I got to that dreaded checkpoint the more excited I was getting, I had this, no way was I going to bugger it up now. Over Days Lock and into the meadows to Clifton Hampden, I walked through a gate and brushed through some nettles and I was suddenly yelping with pain, something had just bitten me on the back of my leg and it hurt so bad I expected to see a snake hanging off the back of my calf. I turned round to see what had bit me and there was nothing there, just a red mark and 2 puncture wounds where something had tried to feast on my leg and it stung like crazy, seemed the meadows weren’t going to beat me this year but they certainly gave me something to remember them by again. I knew that despite the Centurion site stating 85 miles that this was a long leg, something I learned the hard way in 2018 and made sure I had my predicted timings based on what I knew to be the correct mileage. In 2018 I measured over 88 miles to Clifton Hampden and I knew it wouldn’t be far off that this year. I had calculated my predicted accumulative time into Clifton Hampden to be 22 hrs 22 minutes, I arrived in 22:05:15 and was absolutely ecstatic at what I had achieved to get there so close to what I expected, 2020 was going to be my year.
My third and final pacer, Megan was ready and waiting for me and we set off on the final 13 to Oxford knowing only a catastrophe would stop me from finishing this year. Megan had joined a group of us in January this year to do the 30 mile option of Tanners Winter Marathon. Not having done a lot of distance this Ultra lark was all knew for Megan and she earned herself a nickname of Grumpy Meg that day as she had a few dark moments and snapped a few times at the really bad jokes and banter that was flying around. Well to say she got it back in spades for those last 13 miles is an understatement, after a few miles exhaustion had really set in and I was becoming proper grumpy as we traipsed at what I can only described as a death march towards Oxford. Megan was so patient with me and was an absolute star and despite being so grumpy I was so happy that she was looking after me for the final stretch, her calming attitude that morning really helped me, especially as we approached Lower Radley and the constant droning of the Motor Cross bikes racing in Culham park got thoroughly on my nerves. By this point I was at the end of my tether and the temptation to hurl obscenities across the river at these inconsiderate bastards who were ruining the peace and quiet of the countryside was overpowering but I just didn’t have the energy and what would be the point anyway, better to just crack on and get away from it which was easier said than done.
And so Lower Radley came and went and the finish was in sight, only a mile or so to go and I began to perk up a bit. “Megan I am never doing this again” I proclaimed as we neared the finish “Never” Then like a mirage in the desert there it was, Donnington Bridge, the finish just on the other side. My long suffering other half Sam who’d crewed all day Saturday with Becky, my pacers Steve & Greg and his wife Sarah and daughter Hannah, my sons Michael and Daniel who’d crewed me through the night were all on the bridge cheering me on. The elation was overwhelming but so was the sheer exhaustion and crossing the finish line was a mixture of relief and amazement that I’d actually just completed 100 miles in 27 hours, but I’d done it and I was never going to do it again.
Receiving that Buckle meant the end of a 7 year journey, a journey that seemed so unlikely when I first set myself that goal in the club bar in 2013, but what a journey it had been. During that time I had slowly built my strength and stamina, completed 4 marathons, 12 Ultra marathons and many marathon plus distances in training to get there. So as we sat in the car park and I nursed a beer to celebrate I once again proclaimed I would never do another 100 mile race but of course I knew in my heart that I would soon change my mind. It took me a couple of weeks in 2018, this time it took less than 24 hours much to the disgust of Sam who still said I won’t be doing another, yeah dream on.
Finally I need to thank Sam & Becky who crewed me through the day, my boys Daniel & Michael who did the night shift, my pacers Steve, Greg and Megan, Sarah for being the cab driver during the night making sure my pacers were where they needed to be and all of those who just happened to be out on the Thames not supporting me, Graeme, Caroline, Amy, Fiona & Gemma, Jakki, Bev, Danny, Jackie, The Ronaldson’s and Libby all of who played a massive part and not forgetting Ann without whom I’d have probably never even given a 100 mile race a thought.
Also all of the Centurion Army, staff and volunteers alike who as always were there to ensure all us runners were well looked after from start to finish, they did an amazing job in putting on an amazing event given the circumstances.