After completing the SDW50 and vowing “never to do anything like that again” I had signed up for the Thames Path 100. 100 miles from Richmond to Oxford along the Thames Path. This should be one of the easier 100 milers. No demon hills to smash me. Just flat flat flat. Wrong! The preparation, as nearly everyone says, hadn’t been great. Training had been difficult to fit in work and life and so too few long runs. Also a recurring running injury which manifested in tight and very painful neck/shoulder was proving difficult to shift. Tom and Mike at the Physio Rooms in Falmer had done a great job of sorting me out as best they could in about a month of treatment.
I am also one for seeking advice where I can and two fine ultra-runners were happy to pass some on to me. The running themes were – there will be dark times, they’ll pass. But the big one was go slow. Start slow but not any kind of slow, super slow.
So it was to the start line channelling the spirit of the tortoise that I stuck myself at the back of the gaggle or “flagellation of runners”. It was a nervous crowd with a smattering of first timers, like me. We were off at ten sharp. I am quite a chatty runner on these things. Always happy to chat to someone for a mile or 3, pass some time and distract from some pain. However, the first 10 miles or so passed with hardly a word passing my lips. Later when talking to an old vet he was saying that most people were probably nervous and concentrating on their pace plan. As my only plan was to run at the pace of the person I was speaking too this was a blow. I did manage to get talking to a chap called Chris (who turned out to be a Scheme Actuary at a firm near me in London). He’d run before and struggled at the end but was full of good tips. We parted ways but within moments I’d started talking to another Chris at a road crossing who was a veteran, going for the grand-slam of 4 centurion 100 milers in a row (he was also another actuary! What is it with pensions people and silly runs!). We also parted ways and some miles on my own were put down.
Then I saw a familiar looking person up ahead. From around mile 33 on the SDW50 I had walked and talked away from Southease with an ultra-running hippy called Paul, he is quite distinctive with a proper beard and long hair. I caught up with him and we chatted about that run and tactics for this one. He was the first to break it to me that this run is really hard with a relatively high dropout rate. Its flatness meant it’s very repetitive which strains the same muscles and with no uphills to walk and no downhills to get some pace up. Oh.. bums.. It was good to speak to a familiar face, although we lost each other at a check-point. He had instilled in me the need to keep going slow. This was reiterated by another vet Foxy who was having a grotty time at this early stage with wise counsel to not push it now. I hope Chris, Chris and Foxy made it.
It was around here coming into the mile 38 checkpoint that I rolled my foot on some path rutted up by pesky bicyclists! It was sore but not awful. It was starting to get worse into Henley at mile 51 but I sat down and tucked into some custard from my drop bag, and a spot of chatter with some of the other guys there, including Paul.
Taking Foxy’s advice I took my time to ensure I was happy with everything, changing a top and socks although my trusty old road shoes were proving the right choice and so I decided to stick with them and not switch to off-roaders. I also got a text saying I was in the top 60 at this stage which was a massive lift. I left feeling pretty good and very quickly caught up with Paul. He was happy to run together. We did the next 21 miles together which were easily the highlight of the whole run. We chatted about running and life. Encouraged each other although the pain was growing in my foot I decided to ignore it and we had to slow ourselves down a couple of times.
Checkpoints were a joyful oasis as we bantered and got treats, sometimes we decided to maintain this good mood and not stop for long, preferring instead to keep the momentum up. We bowled into Streatley, checkpoint at mile 71 around midnight, which was a massive point for me to make. Last drop bag, and 29 miles from home. However, it was here that the wheels fell off. First thing my watch had just perished in the rain (sorry forgot to mention it was raining) so I sat down to sort out my bag, I’d ordered the vegetable soup and waited for the table service but something was wrong. I felt dizzy, nauseous (although I denied it the look on my face must have been clear as a fellow runner kicked me the sick bucket) the nausea turned into all over body pins and needles (including lips), another friendly bearded runner suggested low blood pressure so I raised my legs on the back of a chair and laid back. I was not going to drop here. Paul asked if he was ok to continue, of course I said and wished him luck, his parting words “follow the signs” would prove useful.
A few moments later (including the mantra of “I am not dropping I am not dropping”) some more tea, veggie soup and an S cap and things started to feel right again. With a few more S Caps wrapped in foil and the instruction to “take one an hour” ringing in my ears I was “encouraged” out of the door. I was down though. My foot was agony, the rain was pouring, it was dark and for the first time in ages I was on my own. The next 6.5 miles were horrible as I struggled to run, energy levels through the floor and the pain in my foot growing to meant that every foot step was a swear word. I was just fixated, through the rain, on making it to the next aid stop. I did and saw two chaps who were probably in worse shape than me. One that was sick at mile 71 and another guy who had been limping for a long time and his pacer. I wasn’t feeling hungry so had a cuppa and perched against the wall and then pushed on again for the next aid station at mile 85.
I had asked a friend to put some tunes together to help me and they gave me the energy to walk the slow tunes and run (shuffle) some of the fast ones. The music was a big lift as I sung along to myself in the dark. The going was grim and long grass meant my feet were soaked through. This dark loneliness was hard to get through. I ascended the irritating hill to check point at mile 85 to see a familiar face resting up. Paul! He seemed happy to see me. I was relieved to see him. There was no way I was going to drop and we were going to make it. We left as dawn was breaking. The night was done. I think I may have sung “morning has broken”.
We trudged/bumbled on but by mile 90 running was pretty much out of the question. My foot felt bad and Paul was carrying some niggles. It was around here I think I properly realised what a good runner Paul is, he was telling me about some of his recent 24 hour exploits and his aims for today was to go a lot lot faster than this! He led the way though to maintain a consistent pace and I just followed. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the pattern of mud up the back of his legs as all banter and fun left me and it was just about finishing. Focus in the zone.
We edged agonisingly closer to Oxford “it’s just round the corner” – “it’s 1k away” we were told. We had been stressing about time (I had been). I was desperate get under 24 hours, mainly so I wouldn’t have to do it again, and we realised we may get under 23 hours. I kept on imagining I could see the finish line, and then it was there. Right, we’re running this in we agreed. Hips, thighs, knees, calves and feet said no way but a few well-chosen swear words and we were running. We must have run 400 metres to the end. I can tell you I was very emotional knowing I had beaten the pain to make it (and in a semi-decent time). The relief as I crossed the line was like a wave as I thanked Paul for getting me through it and Nici (one of the Centurion running organisation team) for organising such an amazing event.
There is a photo of me crying out there, I hope no-one finds it. The Centurion team looked after me in the finishing hut. Everyone was limping and a few poor souls were laid out in the changing rooms. I inspected my foot and it was covered in a nasty angry bruise. A shower and a cuppa though and I was returning to normal (albeit a blubbing hobbling normal).
As I write this two days on I still get waves of emotion. Mainly gratitude to Paul for sticking with me to help me through. I hope he didn’t sacrifice his own run too much to help me. Also pride in myself for sticking it out when dropping might have been easier. Dropping was never going to happen. Thanks to my virtual crew (I had no one with me on the day *sniff*). Mrs B for tracking me through the night and collecting me in my distressed state. Rob and Dave for advice, tips and encouragement. Jim and Ewso for the gps watches. Tapso for the tunes that got me through the darkest of times. All the volunteers that helped me at checkpoints and the Centurion running team for putting it on. Thanks most of all to Paul for getting me to the end!!!