I always intend to write a race report after each ultra that I do, but usually only get as far as about half way and then forget to finish. Hopefully I’ll actually get to the end of this one…
Before the TP100, I devoured pretty much every race report I could find and found it really useful as there were a lot of common things mentioned, and when lots of people are talking about a specific part of the run (e.g. a hill, or endless fields etc) then you know it’s something to at least be aware of. As I didn’t have a chance to recee any of the run, this was handy info.
I wanted to write this report for a number of reasons. Firstly, it serves as a good reminder to myself if I choose to do the event again, and even if not then I like to put a “lessons learnt” section in and it’s usually handy to check over that to make sure I don’t make any silly mistakes in future runs. Secondly, I found the race reports I read really useful, and wanted to add my take on it to the pool so I can help someone else out. Thirdly, it’s such an epic experience to run 100 miles I kind-of want to keep the feeling alive a bit longer 🙂
So… how to write this? I can’t remember all the details in the right order, so it might be a bit of a muddle but I’ll try and keep it in as much of the correct time order as possible!
Let the tale begin…
I’ve been “running” since for a bit over 20 years, but I ran my first ultra (the Green Man) in 2014, and since then have run about 8 more. I ran Endure 24 twice, finally getting to 100 miles for the first time in 2015 in a time of just over 24 hours, so at least I knew I could do the distance!
I entered TP100 back in July 2015, and had a plan to do lots of slow long distance training over the winter. I ran a marathon in October which I did a lot of training for, but after that I seemed to lose my running mojo. I really struggled to even get out the door from December to February, every run feeling a lot more like a chore than anything enjoyable. I only ran 62 miles in December and averaged around 20 miles/week for January and February – not exactly the ideal mileage for 100 mile race training!
At the end of February, I decided that it was probably too late to start properly training for TP100, but I had to make a decision whether to drop out before the beginning of April (otherwise I would lose 100% of the entry fee, as opposed to just 30% if I cancelled with more than 4 weeks notice).
So, I decided on a rough training plan for March. I knew running a 60+ mile weeks would break me physically and mentally, so I opted for 2-4 runs per week, with one of them being long or back-to-back over 2 days.
On 13th March I ran the Salisbury 10 mile race and got a 3 minute PB, tipping just under 70 minutes for the first time. Then next week I ran from my home to Winchester (46 miles) in about 8 and a half hours. This was a real confidence boost – both the distance and the time (about 90 minutes quicker than last time I did it), but I ended up with a knee problem on one side. I didn’t want to immediately blame the Hokas I was wearing, but I took it easy the following week and kept to different shoes.
The week after I ran a totally mind numbing 38 miles around the local country park in 7 hours – bang on my planned target. I knew now I was going to do TP100 no matter what, and it was nice to be able to concentrate on planning for the run.
Just to finish the training – I planned back-to-back 20+20 runs over the next 2 weeks and managed 20+6 (knee playing up again), and 20+10 (just fed up on day 2). This didn’t help at all in terms confidence, but the first run did make me decide to get a pair of Inov8 Race Ultra 290s and cross my fingers and hope that I got on with them and they helped with my knee issue.
Prep for the TP100
Training covered, this was the first 100 mile point-to-point race I’d ever entered, and the first with a mandatory kit list. As the weather was uncertain, I went on a bit of spending spree – what I couldn’t do in training I could make up for in kit… right? 🙂
I got a Salomon “S-Lab Advanced Longest Name Ever 12 Set Plus Vest Doodah” to replace my 3 year old one which I was now about 2 stone too light for. I bought a new head torch, the recommended emergency light, the TP100 route map, some waterproof trousers and some Inov8 Race Ultra Mitts. I also bought some “anti-chafe” undercrackers and some compression shorts as I had previously had a bit of an issue with seams on shorts – very highly recommended as I had no issue at all over 100 miles.
I’d never run a race that had drop bags either and initially I had no idea what to put in them. I wrote various lists of stuff I might need on my phone over the preceding weeks, and when it came to packing the drop bags it all seemed fairly obvious.
I opted for warm stuff in the Henly drop box (51 miles) as that would coincide with about the time it was getting dark (as long as I was on track). I chucked in a fleece at the last minute (more because I had space than I thought I’d need it), and what a race-saving decision that turned out to be! I put change of shorts, socks and t-shirt in the Streatley drop box (71 miles) just in case I got soaked or needed a change. I also stuck spare head torch and GPS batteries in both boxes, along with some food.
I got the train to Richmond on the Friday before, armed with all my gear in a supermarket shopping bag, and got slightly nervous in the massive hail storm as I went over the bridge at Clapham Junction hoping the weather would be nicer the next day!
I arrived at Richmond around 1330 and decided to go for a trip on the tubes around London to pass some nervous time, but later in the afternoon I felt really tired, so went back to the hotel, had some pizza for dinner and a good-luck pint of Guiness and went to bed around 2030.
I pinged awake at 0515, despite my alarm being set for an hour later. I lay in bed, swapping between almost drifting back to sleep and sudden panic as I realised what I was about to attempt! About 6am I couldn’t stand it any more so I got up and started checking my kit. It was all already packed, so it was just another check of everything being in place. For about the millionth time.
I got dressed ready for the race. My Green Man t-shirt, Decathlon anti-chafe underwear, a 4 inch thick layer of BodyGlide over everything that may rub, compression shorts then normal shorts over the top. Compressport calf guards, Injinji socks with 2Toms BlisterShield powder in.
I went down for breakfast at 7am and was the first person there, had some green tea, fruit, yogurt and porridge, forcing down the latter as I didn’t really have any appetite but figured it would be necessary.
Back up to my room, checked everything again (of course), then down to checkout and try out Uber for the first time. It was a whopping one mile from my hotel to the start, but I was buggered if I was going to walk that with a rucksack and big bag considering how much I’d be using my feet later in the day.
I was fairly early at the Old Town Hall in Richmond, and quickly passed kit check, signed my life away with the waiver and got my number. I chatted with a guy who’d ran WSER, wandered back and forth for a bit and then sat on the floor for a while just being nervous. I then remembered I should probably get rid of my drop bags so sorted my final bits and pieces out (like a full charge of my phone), then handed the 2 drop bags and bag for Oxford in at the truck. A few visits to the toilet later and I was sitting by the start line listening to James give his pre-race talk.
1000 on the dot, the horn honked and off we all went!
My strategy for this run was to run the first mile, then walk 0.1 mile at the start of each mile, trying to start with an average around 10:00/mile pace, allowing a drop back to 10:30-11:00/mile when I needed it, hopefully as close to Henley (51 miles) as possible, where I wanted to arrive by 8pm.
So, off I went at 8:00/mile pace, obviously.
Actually, this was part of the plan. One of things about reading race reports is that you can learn a bit about the course even if you’ve never recee’d it. I knew there was a gate that caused a bottleneck within the first mile, so I figured hitting that early would save a bit of time. As it happens, you could easily jump the fence but when I got to the gate there were only a few people in front of me so I queued for 30 seconds or so then was on my way at my planned 10:00/mile pace.
The first aid station (Walton on Thames) was pretty busy. I refilled all 3 of my bottles (2 x 500ml soft flasks, and I too a 500ml water bottle with me for the first 2 aid stations as they were over 10 miles apart and I get through a lot of water in the heat), and grabbed a little bit of food. I’d met up with Joe Delaney a bit before this aid station, and he recommended the cheese scones – they did not disappoint, absolutely delicious!
On we went. There’s not too much detail for this section as I was feeling fine. I’d had a niggle from my knee around 5 miles which I noticed had disappeared when I was concentrating on a niggle from my other ankle at around 11 miles. A quick review at 20 miles suggested nothing important had dropped off so I just got on with running.
It was great to talk with Joe as we ran along. We were doing a very similar run-walk strategy which we got in sync and chatted away for the next 15 miles or so. We were a bit ahead of Joe’s planned pace, and strictly my planned pace too, but I felt very good so I ended up going ahead sometime before Dorney (30.5 mile) aid station.
It seems like a paragraph about how good the volunteer are is pretty much boilerplate for a Centurion event. There’s a good reason for that. I’d heard so much about them, but thought it must have been hyped a bit. No. It isn’t. Volunteer at Centurion events are magical angels. They all seem to find the perfect line between friendly, encouraging and tough when you need it. You want for nothing – I handed over my water bottles and they come back filled, I’m offered food of every variety by people who seem to just want to make my time at the aid stations as easy as possible. Everyone’s smiling, even in the middle of the night! I never thought that one of the things I’d come out of this even with is a desire to volunteer – not only do I want to pay some of that kindness back, but it looks like a bloody good time was had by all as well! Anyway… on with the race…
At Dorney I was pretty hungry so wolfed down way too much. Within a mile after I left I tripped over a root, tried to catch my fall for 3 or 4 lurchy steps then fell in a surprisingly comfortable and completely unintentional roll, ending almost standing right back up again! It knocked the wind out of me a bit though, so I added a short walking break in to get my breath back. Soon after, the excess food came back to haunt me making me feel really bloated and uncomfortable to run, but I managed to keep the 0.1/0.9 mile strategy going.
Just a note on the run/walk idea. I’ve never used it in an ultra before, but I tried it in a couple of training runs. It didn’t seem to make things magically easier during training, but it didn’t make it worse so I thought I might as well give it a bash in the race. During the TP100, I absolutely fell in love with the idea. 0.1 miles is just enough time to walk and refresh, 0.9 miles is a good distance to run. If you feel a bit rubbish, you know it’s never more than 0.9 miles until you get a little walk break, and after the breaks I always found I felt refreshed and ran quicker for about the next quarter of a mile. And having planned breaks stops me taking walking breaks too often, which I always finds happen if I just allow myself walk breaks at any time. For a race like TP100 – which is very flat – it has the added benefit of adding some variety to leg muscle usage over time, otherwise it’s hour after hour of exactly the same muscles being used in the same way.
I was glad to finally get to 44 miles (Cookham), and did so just as the heavens opened. I hid under the tent for a few minutes, during which time I found the watermelon which was absolutely delicious and about the only thing I could tolerate as my stomach still hadn’t returned to normal. As I left, the rain stopped (unusual perfect timing!) and got on with the job of getting to Henley – just over the halfway point and the place I’d get my first drop bag.
The second half
So, I got to Henley at about 1945 – 15 minutes ahead of my pretty optimistic schedule. There were seats, and things cooking and dropboxes and people and smiles and coffee and seats. Did I mention the seats? Before I had quite stopped, one of the wonderful volunteers was shouting my number and my drop box was coming back at lightning speed. I took my vest off, put everything down by a seat (mmmm, seat!), stuck my Garmin on charge from the little battery pack I had and grabbed some meaty pasta. It was delicious!
I’d arrived feeling pretty hot in just a t-shirt, and had felt on the toasty side through the whole of the first 50 miles with the sun shining down for most of it. It seemed a bit strange getting cold weather stuff out of my drop box, but I put on long tights (getting in a right muddle with my shoes on 2 occasions), putting my shorts on over the top again to keep my number on the outside. I swapped my t-shirt for a long sleeved thermal base layer, put a new t-shirt on top (it felt wonderful to put something clean on!), and put my fleece in my backpack just in case I needed it later.
It wasn’t quite headtorch time yet, but I moved it somewhere easy to grab. As I put everything back on, my watch beeped to tell me it had got bored waiting and decided to save the first half of my run, thus cutting the track for the whole race in half! Now I was going to end up with a 51 mile run and a 49 mile run instead of an epic 100 mile run! Annoying, but not the end of the world.
I grabbed a cup of coffee – my first caffeine in over a week – and left the aid station.
It took me about 2 minutes to realise that, now the sun had gone down, the temperature had dropped significantly. Another 2 minutes and I had my mitts on, and was very, very glad I’d doubled up the layers.
I kept the run/walk strategy up for the next few miles, and ended up catching a group of a few people. I ran past, and they caught me during my walk break, then I ran on again. I got a bit excited by a random lock and took a wrong turn in a bid to cross it, at which point the group caught me up again. I’m pretty sure this was where I met Dave Stuart, who I ran with from there until pretty much the end of the race.
Soon it got dark, the head torch went on and we carried on chasing our little spots of light. The terrain had changed from a lot of solid paths/road to more trail/fields and was representative of most of the second half.
Dave and I started chatting about all sorts, time went pretty quickly and soon we were in Reading at 58 miles. Up the steps we went – which was actually quite a nice change after all the flat – and into the room of food! I’d gone in with the intention of a couple of minutes rest, but that wasn’t to happen as Roz (Glover) saw me and immediately told me I was doing well, no time to waste, grab food and get out! Yes boss! I picked up a few savoury snacks and a cup of coffee, and Roz’s face when I picked up a Gu Gel – a sort of “seriously?! Well, it’s your funeral…” look – was an absolute picture!
Outside and back down the slippery steps we started off again. I opened my delicious chocolate orange Gu gel, took a tiny mouthful and almost immediately felt sick. The rest of the gel went in the next bin I found, and it took a good 15 minutes before my stomach was feeling OK again. I should take more heed of Roz’s expression next time 🙂
My recollection of what order things happened in is pretty poor at this point. Essentially, everything was dark, it was difficult to relate events to any particular location so it’s just a series of things happening in dark places, punctuated by stops at the aid stations.
I know at one aid station around midnight the temperature had dropped a bit more, so I dug my fleece out of my race vest and put it on. When we went back outside it was immediately apparent that the fleece was now absolutely essential. To think I only stuck it in the drop box at the last minute based on advice from Centurion in the last TP100 mail sent out just a few days before. At Henley I didn’t believe I’d need it, by 0600 on Sunday I was pretty convinced that having my fleece with me was the difference between finishing and a DNF – it was that cold overnight!
We crossed noisy wiers (really noisy and a bit freaky after the peace of the night!). Dave laughed as I got trapped in a sort-of cage that came to a dead end as I’d missed the side gate. We saw lots of trains (I find them quite comforting!). And we went through a few pretty creepy areas – wooded areas with lots of rubbish in, and one raised wooden walkway that went under a big brick arch bridge that felt like you were entering some monsters lair!
There was a hill, somewhere around miles 67-71. This was the main hill of the whole event, and although Dave had built it up (regularly comparing it to parts of Everest!) it was again actually quite nice to be going on something other than flat. And besides, when you go up, you get to come down again and it was a (now rare) moment of trotting along at something faster than walking pace which felt nice for the legs.
At some point we saw a meteorite as well. This has been confirmed by several other people, so it wasn’t one of those middle-of-the-night-in-and-ultra hallucinations. It was the best one I’ve ever seen – not one of those piddly whizzing points of light that last a second, but something that looked more like a mini comet, taking a good 5-10 seconds to drift across the bit of sky that I could see. It disappeared down behind a wall, and I half expected a boom as it hit the ground but nothing came.
The aid station at 71 miles (Streatley) had our second drop boxes. I had spare socks, shorts, t-shirt and quite a bit of food (mostly sticky sickly gels etc – what was I thinking?!), and I chose to ignore pretty much all of it as I was happy with what I was wearing. I did change the batteries in my GPS as that would see me through to the end of the race, and I also had a bottle of Fortisip – it’s a drink for “disease related malnutrition” that my mother gave to me to try out on a run. A tiny little bottle packs around 300 calories and pretty high protein content, so I figured it had to help as my calorie intake at the aid stations wasn’t anything like the amount I was burning while running.
Somewhere around here, I had the one real bad patch of the run (and in all honestly, it wasn’t that bad). I felt tired, really tired. Mentally and physically exhausted. Every step felt hard work, and the end seemed so far away. Dave said I wasn’t allowed to quit – that if I tried he’d metaphorically kick me up the arse as his hamstrings were too tight to allow him to actually do it. I just tried to block out any negative thoughts and hold on to my past experience that these episodes always pass. Sometimes in minutes, sometimes in a few miles, but they always pass. When you’re in the middle of one, it’s difficult to imagine, but sure enough after a mile or so I was feeling not exactly positive, but a whole lot less negative.
I’m pretty sure the next section involved “the puddle incident”. Pretty close to Wallingford (77.5 miles) I was a bit ahead of Dave and came to a big muddle puddle on a narrow bit of path. I chose the left side of the puddle, nearly slipped on the bank and grabbed out at a barbed wire fence. Luckily it held out and I didn’t rip my hands apart, so I carefully stepped along holding the fence. Dave – having seen the fence and my precarious tiptoe along – opted for the right side, right on the edge of the river bank. “Just don’t fall in the bloody river!” I said to him as I carried on, and pretty much immediately from behind I heard a splash. Shit! I span round to see Dave on his arse in the muddy puddle in the middle of the path. We were only a mile or so from the aid station, but it must have been bloody cold with wet shorts and muddy legs!
From Wallingford to Clifton Hampden is billed as 7.5 miles, but I had my GPS with me so I knew it wasn’t. On all the race reports I’d read, there was a suggestion that this leg of the race felt longer than it should have been, and I can confirm that’s true. Things started to drag (even more) during this stretch, feeling like it was taking forever to knock off each mile. The sky started to lighten, but the temperature seemed to drop even more, especially as we got back close to the river. My whole left arm (the one on the river side) seemed to be frozen, and I was running along in “bandit mode” with my buff over most of my face until my glasses steamed up so much I couldn’t see, when I’d have to then drop it until I see again and then repeat. I don’t think it would matter how tired you were at this point, it felt dangerous to slow let alone stop. To think it was 1st May, and my shoes were iced over on the back and the top from all the frost on the grass.
Eventually after about 90 minutes of slowly lightening sky we arrived at Clifton Hampden – 85 miles in. I tried to eat some more food here, but my appetite was just shot and quite frankly I just wanted this bloody thing over with. Every aid station involved a cup of sugary tea now (and a the need to pee about 15 minutes later without fail), and I was hoping I’d get through on that. 2 more aid stations to go – just 15 miles, not much more than a half marathon. It was just after 6am, so we had to go a little faster than 16 minute mile average to get in under 24 hours. That’s moderately fast walking, but it’s also no time at all at aid stations, and no slowing down. I’d been awake for over 24 hours and covered 85 miles on foot. Could I make it? I had absolutely no idea.
We got going, back down to a bridge and then alongside the river again. The sun was above the horizon now, and within 20 minutes or so it was starting to warm up. The path was a bit rutted like the last 10+ miles which made footing a little awkward, but we were keeping up a good pace. Dave couldn’t run because of his hamstrings, but was pretty adept at fast power walking, so I’d run on at about 13 min/mile pace for a few hundred metres, then walk a bit slower as he caught up. Together we pushed each other on with a few sub 15 average miles, and soon arrived at Lower Radley.
It had warmed up enough for me to take my fleece off now. I grabbed a coke and a few jelly babies and ran on for a bit to catch up with Dave who had been a bit more efficient than me at the aid station. We were both pleased to find that my GPS reported the real distance to the next aid station as a good few hundred metres less than we thought, and we kept up our faster pace, determination now taking over as we were into the less-than-10-miles-to-go phase.
The final aid station was a grab-and-go affair, coke and jelly babies and then off we shot. Again the GPS reported a few hundred metres less (doesn’t sound much but at 15 minute mile pace that’s a few minutes in the bank for free!) and we powered on.
Dave had said on numerous occasions that he was just on for the finish as his hamstring had put pay to his original target, but that I should go on and get a good time. About 3 miles from the end, I picked up a bit more pace and powered on ahead. The GPS ticked down the miles… 2.6, 2.3, 2.1, 1.99, 1.7, 1.4… the route went from fields out onto a path by the river, lots of people about on Sunday morning strolls, birds out, the sun shining. But with a focused tunnel vision, all I could see was the runners further down on the path marking out the route I had to take. 0.99 miles, 0.8, 0.7… nearly there… 0.5, 0.4… The end came into sight on my GPS screen, and then I could see it ahead – the big blue inflatable finish!
I’m not quite sure where it came from – I think just from a pure desire to get this over and done with – but I started running. Not staggering, or 12 min/mile trotting, but 8:00 pace, then 7:00 pace… round the corner and into the field, and down the finishing straight at about 5:30/mile pace according to my Garmin!
100 miles: 23:30:09.
I went into this race without enough training to make me confident, but came out with a sub 24 finish and “100 miles – One Day” buckle. Whilst it was my legs and head that got me round on the day, I don’t think it would have happened without a whole other bunch of people.
I travelled with Dave Stuart for over 12 hours and his chat and company got me through some pretty tough nighttime miles. Falling on his arse at mile 76 provided a bit of a laugh too 🙂
The volunteers were wonderful and made the aid stations something to look forward to – a bunch of friendly faces even in the black of night, helping in any way they could.
There must be a lot of work that goes into making an event like this happen – course marking, permits for various parts of the course, insurance, booking halls, the IT stuff behind the scenes to have live updates on the website and I’m sure lots more, so a big thanks to all the Centurion team for putting on such a well organised and seamless event.
I’ve got to thank my “Moanday” mates – Mark, Steve and James – for taking every opportunity for ripping the piss out of me at every opportunity! I did alright though, eh? 😉
Chris Edmonds, Ultra Blakes (Martin? I’ve never figured out your real name!) and especially Roz Glover for your advice before the race – seriously Roz, you changed my mindset on quite a few aspects of the race a week before and I pretty much got me my sub 24 🙂
My sister deserves a thank you for starting me off on this whole running thing. And my wife and kids especially for putting up with my disappearing on stupidly long training runs, banging on about my races and getting all grouchy in the last week or so before the race!
Sorry, got a bit carried away there – it’s like I’ve won a bloody Oscar!
- It’s cold by the river. The Centurion info mentions this. Believe it. I reckon you could knock 3-5C off the actual temperature, which took it to below zero for quite a few hours of the night.
- A run/walk strategy paid massive dividends for me. I’ve never felt so good at 50 miles, and I believe it’s the only way I got to the end in the time I did.
- My eTrex 30 was a godsend. I set it up by downloading the route from the Centurion website, then using Garmin Basecamp to chop up the track into a set of legs between aid stations. As I leave each aid station, I choose the next track. The main screen shows distance to the next aid station (the real distance, even if you get lost), and ETA. This allows for pretty accurate pacing.
- My new headtorch – a Suprabeam V3 Air – was really good. Takes 3 AAA batteries and was a bit lighter overall than my Petzl Myo RXP and brighter too. Highly recommended.
- The new Inov8 Race Ultra mitts I bought are ridiculously light but the warmest gloves I’ve ever had. They’re completely waterproof and although my hands still got cold they were just about comfortable for most of the time. I suffer from fairly mild Raynaud’s but I usually end up with hands that are pretty useless and painful even in gloves if the temperature drops below about 4C, whereas I could still use my hands even in sub zero temperatures with these mitts,
- It may feel like it’s dragging in the night, but you will get a boost when the sun comes up. I didn’t believe it in the night, but a ragged determination comes into play as the sun rises and you get nearer the end. The world seems a much friendlier place when it’s light, like it’s trying to help you get to the end rather than hold you back.
- I think stopping caffeine for a week before the race was very useful. I didn’t have my first caffeine until Henley (51 miles) and then drank it pretty much continuously through the night.
- Decathlon anti-chafe underpants combined with compression shorts, and a liberal helping of body glide to appropriate parts led to not a single hint of chafing over 24 hours!
- Injinji socks and 2Toms Anti-Blister powder worked a treat for the feet too – tender spots on the balls of my feet and a couple of fairly minor little-toe blisters was all I have to report.