I almost titled this one; ‘From Sofa To Ultra To Sofa’, because on Sunday morning I really couldn’t work out why I was doing this anymore.
Last night, I had a good chat on the phone with my Mum and I can tell how much she worries about me doing these types of races, even if on the surface she is supportive. I believe her exact words last night were “fucking ridiculous, Timmy…”. She has a point!
And I have been giving this a lot of thought since we spoke. Ultramarathons are silly. They do push you to your limits and the thing she worries about most are the long term health implications. I will go into detail shortly about what happened during the race, but a few things happened during the race which I know are familiar to a lot of ultrarunners, but were new to me. However, I also have to weigh up the benefits of what ultras have done for me.
I race quite little compared with a lot of people I know and genuinely mainly run for fun- it’s not even training. Yes, the races may hurt but I do not believe I am doing long term damage. What was a lot more damaging for sure, was how I used to live before I found ultras.
That said, I want to find a balance that is right for me. I can pretty categorically say that I will never enter a race longer than 100 miles. The GUCR and Spartathlon have never been high on my list and have just been relegated a long way down! For me, I want to get back to a position of finding a challenge without this being based around distance or speed. The challenge is still Western States and this takes me back to why I was lining up at 10am on Saturday morning in Richmond, on the bank of the River Thames.
For the last two years I have qualified for Western States using the North Downs Way 50 in 2013 (when 50 mile qualifiers were still allowed) and the North Downs Way 100 in 2014, when the qualification criteria was toughened. This year I wanted to do a different qualifier to get my tickets up to 4 in the lottery and I opted for the Thames Path 100.
On paper, this is a fairly flat and fast 100 miler, but in reality the drop out rates for the last few years show how difficult this one is, with a finish average of just over 60% for the last 4 years. This is much lower than most Centurion races in the UK.
I woke up early on Saturday morning and had breakfast at the in-laws in London. Logistically, this was a great race as I could stay in West London with them and get the tube to the start at a decent hour in the morning, as opposed to a hotel like usual. And I was looked after both before and after the race like royalty.
I went alone to register and Solange, Monty and Luena joined me afterwards to see me off at the start. One of Solange’s friends, Flo, also joined us and I knew they would all have a great day heading off for hot chocolate and to see the deer in Richmond Park after I headed off. A quick kiss to the kids, James Elson runs through his final briefing (“…if you’re running through Reading wearing fluorescent clothing after dark, you will get shouted at, just so you know…”) and we were off.
The thing about this race is, much of it looks very similar and many parts of the race have merged in my mind. I have decided not to go into detail about the sections between aid stations as, in all honesty, much of it blended into one and I simply don’t remember many parts of the race.
The first 11 miles went totally to plan and I arrived at the first aid station ten minutes ahead of schedule. However, my feet were hurting more than I expected at this stage and this didn’t bode well. Whilst a different pair, these were the same type of shoes- the Hoka Rapa Nui- that I used for 75 miles of the Brazos Bend 100 back in December and they felt amazing there. Here, even though I had trained for most of my long runs in these shoes, they hurt an extreme amount on the lower outsides of my feet. I have no idea why this was the case, but on the flip side whilst it hurt it also gave me something to focus on to take away the monotony of the similarity of the route. I tried changing my stride and found the more I ran on my toes, the better the pain got which made it a little more sustainable. Before I knew it I was at mile 22 and greeted by a smiling Gary Dalton who remarked that I looked “happy”. Maybe I missed my calling as an actor.
From here, the no-mans-land grind began and I just focussed on getting to halfway in as decent shape as possible. Without going into great detail, I always take an Imodium before I start an ultra and this has always worked well for me. However, this race was pretty humid during the day compared with what I had expected so I was drinking a lot, as well as eating well at aid stations, and I quickly felt myself getting bloated. Between miles 40 and 51 I was starting to feel a little nauseous, which is not something I have experienced before. I have only been sick in an ultra once and with hindsight this was more something getting stuck in my throat and regurgitation as much as anything and was in my first ultra. So I was a little concerned that I may be sick here.
Actually, I was petrified. I was in pain from my feet anyway and I was worried that if I was sick once, I would be sick all night and losing the precious calories I had taken on board and with an inability to take on more, I would drop. And dropping meant having to return to the NDW100 in August to get my WS qualifier. That wasn’t going to happen. No way.
At mile 51 I had access to my first drop bag and changed clothes getting ready for dusk. I managed to get some pasta down which was kindly brought to me by Peter Lemon and had a quick chat with him and James Adams. Having read my blog before the race, James asked if I was on A, B or C plan at this stage. I said I didn’t see much chance of a negative split so was on B plan for now- a sub 24 hour finish. I had hit halfway in 10 hours, so had 14 to get the second half done. This was still potentially do-able, if my body would play ball.
A few miles before here I had buddied up with a runner called Paul. I presume from the results he is Paul Gunner, but I didn’t grab his surname on the day. Paul was running his first 100 miler and was keen to buddy up for the night leg. I told him that was cool with me but also warned him I can get pretty grumpy and might not say a lot, but we actually worked really well together overnight. We only had one small navigation error and probably only added an extra mile at worst, but overall just ground it out well. I was due to be kindly paced by Paul Ali from 3am but I told him I was way off my 20 hour goal and it was likely to be a death march so a pacer was unnecessary, although a very kind offer.
The thing about this race was, none of it was unfamiliar. I knew what was coming even though I didn’t know the route. I knew the pain, the sleep demons, the yawning, the desperation for caffeine without tempering the heart rate. It was unemotionally familiar. But then, as I left Reading, having spoken to Paul Ali and been booted out the door by Jacqui Byrne, I downed a gel and it happened.
The saliva built up in my mouth and as I spat, I knew what was coming. Heave. Here we go. I was bent double by the side of the trail and Paul stopped to make sure I was OK. I think Ilsuk Han was also with us. My system emptied, I stood back up straight and felt absolutely awesome. I had heard about this and read about this. A system re-set and you are off again. The next hour was probably my best hour of running during the whole race. I just took on water and settled my stomach and felt like I was floating on air. Yet at the same time, with 40 miles to go, I knew this wasn’t sustainable so had to formulate a plan. My misery seemed to make Bryan Webster happy though as he jogged by chuckling to his evil self.
Gels were now out and real food was not appealing. I knew I could probably handle soup so this was what I chose from here on in when available. I also opted to get on Robbie Britton’s sugar train 20 miles sooner than expected and the only thing that appealed were Jelly Babies.
Because I was in no way taking on the calories I needed, I opted to also go for a 50/50 mix of coca-cola and water in my bottles for the remainder of the run. This was pretty sickly, but meant I could handle the calories and I needed to just keep the tank fuelled up enough to finish.
As the sun rose, I could feel Paul was stronger than me. I insisted that he go ahead now it was light, not only so he got the time he deserved, but also so I could run my own race now. Not only was I not in the mood to talk by this point, I was even angry at my own i-pod and hated every song. It was now a case of getting the last 20 miles done at my own pace and if I finished in a C Plan time, so be it. But I knew I had a better chance if I was alone to do my own thing. I knew what I had to do. The night had thrown up some obstacles, but this was now familiar again.
Since being sick at mile 59 I was pretty cautious with how I managed the night and somehow hadn’t been sick since. I just needed to sustain myself now and get to Oxford sensibly (sensible is a relative term in this world I have come to realise).
Sure enough, the old adage of ‘it never always gets worse’ kicked in. Between mile 85 and 91 I stopped feeling like dog mince and started feeling like a dogs dinner. I ran this 10k in just over an hour and started to feel warm again for the first time in ages. I knew I was back on for a sub-24 hour time, even if most of this race had been disastrous. There was no way I was giving that buckle up now, with 9 miles to go and 2 hours and 45 minutes to get home in. I smashed out the next 4 miles in 45 minutes (11 minute mileing after 95 miles and no food and no sleep- amazing) and was greeted at the final aid station by Ian Walker- a good friend. I had two hours to cover the last 4.9 miles, but Ian was not happy with my complacency. He calmly told me to run and walk but keep moving. But I secretly knew I had it in the bag now.
A couple of miles on I saw Justin Bateman walking back towards me. I couldn’t quite work out what was happening- he was going the wrong way. He explained he had damaged his knee and just couldn’t finish. He was 3 miles from the finish line. I told him he could and to walk with me, but he was adamant it was serious and I wasn’t one to argue with him so tragically watched him hobble back towards the aid station to drop out. I reminded myself that no one has it in the bag until they cross the finish line.
10 minutes later Chris Mills popped into view and it was great to see him. I was walking now with a pacer called Matt and I forget the name of his runner and Chris joined us to stroll in. None of us were running now, we were done and knew we could stroll in for sub 24. Whether it was the site of Chris’s calves or whether it was relief that I had done it and could stop doing maths, about a mile from the finish I found myself bent double again and wretching my guts out. I’m not quite sure what the Sunday morning dog walkers thought of that but I think seeing the state of us all coming in made them realise this wasn’t a 5k fun run.
I knew that Solange and Monty were coming up on the first train from Paddington to meet me at the finish and that this arrived at 9am. If they were on time and got a cab straight away, I would be able to finish crossing the line with Monty, but sadly the train was delayed and I needed to get this done. Unemotional, once again, I crossed the line got my photos, got my hugs, got my buckle and wandered inside to try and work out where on earth I was.
23 hours and 19 minutes. It could have been so much better. It also could have been so much worse. What a journey I have been on these last three years.
Actually, it is less than 3 years. My first ultra was in August 2012 and since then I have run 3 100 milers in the last 9 months (2 sub-24 and one internationally), the North Downs Way 50 three times, the South Downs Way 50, The Brecon Beacons Ultra, The Dorset CTS Ultra, The Green Man Ultra and numerous marathons including a PB in Venice in August. That is quite a haul and I need to take pride in that. And this is why I do this. I am proud of the man I am becoming and after each race where I break myself down mentally, I grow back stronger.
The thing is, sadly Saturday and Sunday evolved into a box ticking exercise, where I was finishing to simply apply for another race. I didn’t enjoy it or take pride from the challenge and that is a real shame. I am not done with ultras by any means, but I am also not going to run for the sake of running and need to get back to the passion and enjoyment.
Maybe this is just a post race downer, I don’t know, but as daft as it sounds, 100 miles isn’t the challenge it once was. Going longer isn’t going to happen, but finding peace and beauty is. I am not in this for the brutality of it, but the places it allows me to see and feel. I am going to now take a few weeks to take stock and work out what the next challenge will be, but one thing is for sure, I am not done until you see me in Squaw.
A few thank you’s- to all of the volunteers that make Centurion races so special. Each and every one of you who stayed up all night and got us idiots in and out safely. To Stuart March- who I always fail to mention, but is a great friend and even better photographer, to Nici and James for making these events sustainable and safe, Clare, Natasha, Jon, Nikki, Simon and Liz at the finish. Stu and Roz and everyone who helped me as I struggled at the end. Chris Mills, fast becoming one of my best mates (unless you drop at Transvulcania next weekend- then you’re dead to me) and finally Solange and Teresa for looking after me on Sunday and Monday with sympathy even though I had only done this to myself!