Tackling a 100 mile race with such poor preparation may not have been the greatest idea I have ever had, but on Friday morning we had packed and got the train to Goring on Thames, base for the Centurion Autumn 100.
We had booked the large dormitory at the YHA in Streatley for Friday and Saturday night. Friday night for the runners and Saturday night for the pacers and supporters.
Having checked in, we grabbed some nice food and a beer in the Bull Inn (they offer a nice selection of plant based food), before a stroll into Goring to walk off the food and grab another beer, before heading back to the YHA for an early night.
After a decent sleep we had breakfast at the YHA with other runners who’d had the same idea as us, completed the final prep and headed to the Village Hall in Goring for check in.
Now, the weather forecast for Saturday was hot and dry with a massive change overnight around 4am, with heavy rain arriving. We hadn’t expected it to throw it down on Saturday morning, but luckily it stopped before the 10am race start.
Being there before 9am meant that mandatory kit check was quick, as was number collection. With final changes to the kit bag done and back pack loaded for the first stage, we were ready for James’ pre-race brief.
The brief is now quite familiar, but there is some hugely important information in there about weather and safety (he was spot on). As tradition has it, ‘Who is running their first Centurion race? is asked. Hands raised. Big round of applause. ‘Who is running their first 100 miler?’ ‘Who is completing the 100 mile Grand Slam (all 4 Centurion 100 milers)?’ Finally ‘Who is running their 196th (I think it was 196) 100 miler?’ That is crazy. I had a good chat with this lady, Sandra Brown, during the race and at the end. What a privilege to be on the start line with such a pioneer.
The A100 consists of 4 x 25 mile spurs, each being an out and back. Stages 1 and 4 are along the Thames Path and stages 2 and 3 are along Ridgeway.
The advice for stage 1 was not to go out too quickly. It’s flat and the temptation is to get ahead of schedule. We were determined not to do this. But we did. To be fair, it was totally by accident. We had set the Suunto’s to the 100 hour battery life, which makes them less accurate. However, the first 12.5 miles only measured 10.5 miles, so although we were at the desired pace according to the watch, we were miles ahead of schedule, over 20 minutes. We got there in 2 hours 20 mins. Nick and I had a chat and we decided to reign it in. It was so hot, we had to slow down. And we did.
The return to Goring was in 2 hours 40 mins, meaning a first 25 mile split of 5 hours. In front of schedule, but it turned out to be OK, as I spent ages taping a hot spot on the underside on my foot. A lesson learned from previous races. Time spent early on sorting this kind of thing out, can save a lot of pain later. We spent 20 minutes in the Village Hall at the end of the first stage, but I think it was well spent.
Stage 2 was out on Ridgeway. I had thought that it would be hilly pretty quickly, but no. It must have been around 4 miles of pretty flat riverside running before we hit the hills. The aid station on stage 2 is after 4 miles at North Stoke, so the second half of the outbound section is really long to the turn around point at Swyncombe. It is a great section, although I took very few pictures, as we were concentrating on not falling down the badger holes or tripping over the tree roots.
It was getting dark as we approached the turn around point after 37.5 miles and 8 and a quarter hours. This was more like the pace that we’d planned. This is where it started to get tough. The slightly dodgy technical section on the way out was now really tricky in the dark. Having to check for haz tape to keep going in the right direction while also not falling over (Nick failed on the second point) was both time consuming and slowed us down. It was a treat to see the aid station at North Stoke on the way back, signalling only 4 miles until we got back to Goring, the half way point and the company of our pacers. We arrived back at the Village Hall in 11 and a half hours, a bit slower than we’d hoped, but still in good spirits, good shape, still eating and new found energy from our pacers, Jay and Jill.
Stage 3 is the hilliest of all 4 stages and I had done it before, as pacer for Philippe in 2016. So, I knew what was coming. Nothing to be scared of, but plenty to slow you down after 50 miles. We were still running and going well. Walking up the hills and running a lot of the flat and downhill. Ahead of time it started to rain in spells and the wind got up, which wasn’t in the plan, but everything was good. We reached the turn around point at Chain Hill in just over 15 hours, pretty much bang on schedule and made our way back along Ridgeway to Goring.
Every credit to the volunteers at those aid station on stage 3 in the middle of the night. There was little or no protection from the wind and rain and they were amazing.
During his race brief James had warned that the rain would really start at 4am and that was pretty much spot on. That’s when it started and it didn’t stop. For 8 hours. We came back to the large bump that signalled the end of the trail section of the third stage and hit the 3 or so miles on road back to Goring. That first section on the road back to the main road seemed to go on forever. Much longer than on the way out. Nick and Jill were going well and caught up with us just as we hit the main road. The rain intensified and we quickly made progress downhill back to Goring to prepare for stage 4, miles 75 to the end.
While we had been out in the darkness, the pacers and supporters had been making the most of the YHA room that we’d hired for the night as well. Looks proper cosy in there. These people are brilliant.
So there were about 2 hours of darkness left before the sun came up and we were really looking forward to it. Even though we weren’t going to see the sun, having to concentrate less on trying to see where you’re going was going to be a blessing.
Now, there were some decisions to make in the village hall. The main one being footwear. Due to the injury, I hadn’t bothered replacing my trail shoes, as quite frankly, I hadn’t thought I’d need any. I had thought even less that I’d be sitting at the 75 mile point regretting not having replaced them. There were 2 options. Firstly, stick with the same road shoes and slide everywhere and be comfortable in the most comfy shoe I’ve ever had. Secondly, change to the shoes with a little more grip, but less cushioning. Stupidly, it turns out, I went for the latter. They didn’t give me enough grip, so I still slipped everywhere and there were more hard sections than I’d expected, so every step on the concrete and the hard paths in the Innov-8’s was painful.
It soon become all too obvious that my waterproof was only waterproof in certain conditions. After 2 hours in a downpour I was soaking and frozen. The base layer helped, but this was not good. My hands were cold and my gloves were sodden. My hat was drenched and I started to shake. As we headed through the housing estate before Reading I reached a low. It was the first time that I considered that I might not make it. I was moving slowly, my feet were hurting (stupid trainer decision) and I was shaking. I was desperate to get to the turn around point, but it was 8.5 miles before the aid station and that a long way when you’re running less and less.
There were huge puddles everywhere and on the towpath there was a 6 inch stream coming down off the railway line into the Thames. There was no point in trying to keep your feet dry. In fact, it was impossible to avoid the stream, so I decided to grin and bear it and run straight through the water.
The path to the turn around point seems to go on forever. I knew this. I had been warned, but the low continued. We arrived at the aid station and Nick was sitting there shaking. We were both in the same boat. I was more worried about her to be honest. Steph, her pacer, got her into a new base layer and this, couple with a lot of coffee, warmed her up and got her going again. I changed base layer, drink coffee and we left Reading together.
It was now destination Goring / destination buckle.
Nick soon dropped me. She found some extra energy and running was keeping her warm. The rain kept coming down and I got cold again. I think that I may have been saved by wearing a bin bag from the last aid station at Whitchurch. I looked daft, but it really warmed me up. Only 4 miles to go and nothing (apart from falling over) was going to stop me now.
I hadn’t thought about time for a long while now. I wasn’t going to get timed out and the only goal was getting home safely. However, as we got closer to home, a sub 26 hour finish was in sight. That was the A goal, but not that important in the grand scheme of things. It suddenly dawned on me as we came onto the path on the last 200m of the river section that I could do it. From somewhere I mustered a bizarre ‘sprint’ finish. The emotion of it all got to me and I couldn’t help but leg it for the last 400m. I’m not sure that I pick my knees up that high at the end of the parkrun.
25 hours 54 minutes and 30 seconds after we started, I crossed the finish line. This was unbelievable. I hadn’t even been able to walk properly for around 3 months of the year and it was on the back of around 8 weeks of training. There were inevitable tears (and they weren’t just from the pain of having nipple tape removed).
And here we are. Happy, dry and warm.
When I got in, Nick had been there for 20+ minutes. She was covered in clothes, hats and blankets, as well as holding 2 cups of coffee. The volunteers were amazing in getting her body temperature back up and she was amazing to have gone round in just over 25 and a half hours.
I think that it’s obvious from this experience, much more than the SDW100, is that the psychological strength needed to complete this was as important as the physical. I had around 8 weeks of real training. This was an hour long hill reps session, a long run at the weekend (between 21 and 31 miles) and 1 other session each week. I limited it to this through fear of further injury and not getting to the start line. I would definitely advise anyone thinking of attempting this kind of distance to read about or speak to someone with experience of dealing with this distance. Keeping positive is so important and being positive over 26 hour hours isn’t that easy, especially when you’re s cold and wet.
So, that’s 2 of the Centurion 100 milers down and 2 to go. It’s not the Grand Slam (all 4 in 1 year), but we’ll do them all. In 4 years. North Downs Way, then Thames Path. We’ve got a 100% success rate so far, which isn’t bad.
We can’t thank everyone enough. James, Nici and all of the Centurion crew. We were so well looked after. From the first home to the person who squeezes under cut off, we’re all just as important and that’s a special feeling.
We shared something with our pacers that is there forever. It’s easy to say that we wouldn’t have finished without Jay, Jill, Simon and Steph, but it’s true. Their company, encouragement and care will never be forgotten. Part of that medal belongs to them.
And to Philippe and Francesca, who came straight from Gatwick taking a detour on the way home from their holiday (a 100 mile / 18 hour detour) and Sarah, who came up with Simon straight from a party, the boost you gave us at Reading after mile 91 was an amazing feeling.
And finally, a huge thanks to my training partner, best friend and wifey. We did it after a tough, shitty year. And now there are loads more adventures in the diary for 2019. Woo hoo.
The 2 buckles sit there beside our bed with our wedding photo to give me strength when anxiety bites. If I can get through those last 25 miles of the A100, I can get through anything 🙂
Oh, and still powered by plants, mainly fruit, nuts, Gu gels, Trailwind, tomatoes, crisps and jam/peanut butter sandwiches.
Take care and I hope you enjoyed reading this, Neil.
Awesome achievement Neil, especially with the awful weather… super heroes… both you and Nick.