Running 100 miles is hard. Really hard. Like a trauma where the brain suppresses horrific memories, the body heals quickly and the mind lets go. It’s why I keep signing up to this distance and I only remember the agony and mental despair about 60 miles in.
Most ultras vary from somewhat hilly to outright mountainous. It was never designed to be an easy sport, but races do vary in difficulty. On paper the Thames Path 100 sounds like it should be at the easier end of the spectrum. A flat course, relatively urban (i.e. easy access for crews and things like ice cream vans), spring weather and a mixture of tarmac and fields. Flippantly someone said it was the ‘London Marathon’ of 100 milers- i.e. people enter thinking it will be pretty straightforward to get from London to Oxford in less than 28 hours. How hard can it be…?
I first ran this race back in 2015 when I was arguably at the best fitness of my life. I had run a PB at The Brazos Bend 100 miler in Texas four months before, coming in for 18th place (no, there weren’t 19 entrants…), and kept up a good training block afterwards. That year it was warm-ish in the day but poured with rain overnight and I finished in 23:16, having walked most of the last 10 miles.
I remembered it was hard. As mentally draining as anything I had ever done before, but I felt confident this time around that I was pretty fit- maybe not 2015 fit- but in better shape than last year and felt that time was beatable. As I mentioned earlier, my brain had suppressed a lot.
Stood on the start line with my good friend David Ickringill, we knew we were in for a toasty day. Not outrageously hot, but having endured 7 months of crap UK weather, certainly a shock to the system type of hot. It turned out to be both- as the below graph from fellow runner Lee Scotts watch shows, it peaked at over 90 Fahrenheit. That is Western States territory, almost, and with no heat acclimation for most of the field, the race was set to be a brutal war of attrition.
All my pacing times went out of the window and I purely ran to feel. This race wasn’t about getting a PB, although it would have been a bonus, it was about getting to Oxford safely and bagging my 32 Western States tickets, as my 7th year of qualifying in a row. So much more pressure each year not to fuck it up!
I won’t bore you with blow by blow details, but the first 30 miles went well and I kept myself cool. Between 3pm and 6pm it felt at its hottest and by then I was keeping drenched however I could. Never has the River Thames appealed for a swim, like it was a beach in Zanzibar. It was truly baking. As an example, many of the houses lining the route are multi-millionaire territory and one with a beautiful garden had a gardener in the front working the sprinklers. A fellow runner and myself gestured to him and he sprayed us down liberally- one of the best feelings during the run.
A big mistake people make in the heat is simply drinking more than normal. Whilst this is obviously important, this doesn’t cool your core and you need to do this externally. The drop out rate for this rate was huge by Centurion standards and I firmly believe that whilst many will have been for injury, a lot will have been to managing body temperature adequately and this is something I have also had to learn the hard way. If you are hot, it’s a problem. If you stop sweating, it’s a problem. Staying cool was the absolute object of the day. As a result my pace fell dramatically, but I was comfortable on the cut offs and happy to plod until the sun went down and then, hopefully, make hay overnight.
Being well down on my time of 2015, one of the hardest parts mentally was running into the dark knowing I had run this section in daylight 3 years ago. The head trys to defeat you at times like this, but I kept reminding myself I was doing great and this wasn’t about beating that time. I naturally drifted back to feeling like a failure, but kept telling myself this wasn’t even the same race as back then. It was the same route, but todays conditions were a million miles away.
As I approached the halfway point at Henley, I pushed to get there before I had to put my torch on. As a result, and with a build up of food, water and tailwind in my stomach, I felt the familiar acids rising. Here we go again. And I duly decorated the river bank in one of the wealthiest towns in the country. Classy.
But I no longer panic when I am sick. It just happens sometimes and can be managed so I walked into Henley feeling fresh and ready to get some new calories in via the pasta and cheese on offer. As I sat down, David had arrived just before me and I momentarily let slip that I was thinking of dropping. He was having none of it and said to just chip away. I knew I wasn’t ready to drop and I am sorry I shared that burden with him- from experience when someone tells you that, it can make you second guess what you yourself are doing so I should have kept it to myself and just got on with it, but he was great and pushed me on my way.
The contrast between day and night temperatures was huge and will also be what caught a number of runners out. I put on a gillet and arm warmers, changed my tshirt and with a stomach filling back up with warm pasta I was on my way and feeling not 100%, but certainly better than when I arrived.
Henley to Reading (mile 58) was really nice. Slow and steady jogging with the cool evening air around me and took about an hour and a half, which I was very happy with. At Reading I was in and out, having seen Tania from Runderwear. I think I looked worse than I felt and I could tell she was a little concerned but I said I was fine and made my way out.
There is no other way to describe this next section, aside from shit. You just have to get through it. Through Reading there are some real ‘characters’ by the river after midnight so that motivated me to keep running instead of walking and just clear the urban area. After this, fields go on forever and then the trainline from Paddington runs parallel with the path and this is where I had a sickness session in 2015. Well. Sure enough within 200 yards of where that happened, I re-decorated the hedge again. This time, as opposed to Henley, it was a huge clear out but again like 2015, I felt amazing. Doubled up by the side of the trail, runners checked I was OK but I explained its normal for me and would be on my way shortly. Normal may not be ideal, but its still normal.
From here you run through a housing estate which has a pleasant incline and then descent and then boring fields for several miles until you hit a bridge and the next aid station.
I know this section well, having paced at the Autumn 100 which shares this leg, as well as my previous run here, so this aid station marks 4 miles to Goring, which is the 71 mile point and my mental destination from which I knew if I made Goring, I would finish.
Joe Delaney was outside here and we had a handshake. He then demanded he see me again within 3 minutes or he was coming into the checkpoint to throw me out. I needed that at 3am and the height of the cold night!
The next four miles to Goring is probably my favourite bit of this race. It is finally hilly and there is a gorgeous trail section down to the river and I thoroughly enjoyed this, sucking on my 50% water 50% coke mix and jelly babies.
At Goring I was met by the dream team of Paul Ali and Tim Cox. Two guys I have huge respect for in the sport. If anyone knows how to get 100’s done, its these two.
They fixed me up with beans and cheese (just amazing!) and I had a quick chat with Sarah Sawyer, whos husband Tom had sadly called it a day at Goring. I then spotted Tom Garrod, who is a way better runner than me and it made me realise that the sensible runners were holding a lot back today and this gave me confidence that I was racing this well and carefully. I reminded myself that only a finish mattered, not the time.
I accessed my drop bag here and grabbed a down jacket to put on over my gillet- it really was that cold now- as well as a travel pot of sudocreme which I was badly in need of, this late in the day. Chafing is something that I still haven’t sorted. Even with runderwear and Vaseline etc, it still gets me- especially in hot races. So whilst sudocreme causes a right mess, it was that little pot that got me to the finish line.
I knew that at the next aid station I was to meet my pacer, Dawn and her husband Chris. They would get me to the finish line no matter what. I had already called them earlier in the race to say not to bother coming as I was super slow compared to my original plan and didn’t want to waste their time if it involved a death march to the finish. They insisted anyway and this gave me a real boost.
As the sun rose, my pace fell. Often people talk about the rejuvenation of a sunrise during a 100 miler, but I find it is a few hours later that I feel better when the warmth breaks through. I staggered along just wanting to get to Dawn as I came through a lovely bunch of people out at 5am bird watching for the dawn chorus (no pun intended). They were incredibly supportive, if a little shocked to see exhausted runners at that time in the middle of nowhere. About as far from the people I had seen in Reading as you can imagine!
As I came into the village and saw Dawn and Chris outside the aid station, I let them know that I needed a 10 minute power nap. For many people, this can be seen as race ending but for me I find a nap is a lifesaver. In 2014 when I crewed Sam Robson at the GUCR, he had a power nap that we as crew felt was race ending, after a disastrous (by his standards) night leg. 15 minutes later he was out of the car and clocking nine minute miles.
I wasn’t quite on that pace, but as soon as I left the car I was running again and it was fantastic to know I wasn’t alone and that Dawn would make me finish. She explained after that having not paced before in a 100 miler, she would use a strategy of pretending I was Chris and nag me into submission. This worked a treat!
We ran for seven hours together and at times I was stressed about cut offs, but she just set a pace that I could jog/ walk behind her to and this was sufficient. My walking was shockingly slow, so I had to jog to keep up with the pace and this is something I need to improve on. The thing is, I never walk the flat in training. For my mountain races last summer, I trained myself to hike efficiently with poles and became really quite good. But on the flat, I run so I need to improve this if I have any hope at the KACR in July.
By hook or by crook, we were chewing up the miles between 11 minute and 18 minute mile pace (I needed to be ahead of 20 min mile average) and whilst slow by anyone’s standards, 90 miles into a race this pace still hurt.
By the time we reached the last aid station it was another glorious day, for anyone but a runner. For us, it was savage but the team had rigged up a shower here and this was amazing to stand under for two minutes, a quick sit down to gag down some fruit, cheese and coke (all my stomach would manage) and we were off for the last five miles.
My god that last section was hard. It felt hotter than the day before and I was a mess. Dawn kept me drenched and Chris was amazing with encouragement whenever we saw him (I was rather envious of his deckchair). Finally, Oxford was in sight.
As we approached the finish I thanked Dawn from the bottom of my heart. That finish took every bit of my, and her, will power. I was on the verge of calling it a day when I met them but they got me safely delivered and it was an honour to run across the finish line, hand in hand, as Chris filmed and congratulated. Thank you both so much- pacing and crewing is so stressful, especially when it drags on and cut offs come into play, but you were both amazing.
I am also delighted to say that David finished an hour in front of me and Goska, from Rockstar, a few minutes after me. Nearly half the field dropped and these are already good ultrarunners to have qualified to be on the start line. That was truly brutal, but I am so glad I persevered.
As always, a huge thanks to the volunteers for all their hard work. To James Elson and Nici Griffin, Drew and the team. Nikki Mills, Stuart March, Richard Stillion, Lorna and Phil Bradburn and all the regulars I have forgotten to mention, as well as everyone out on the course not in an official capacity but with sun cream, ice lollies, water and kind words. It is a special little world I have found myself in for the last few years.