Don’t ever offer to pace anyone at a Centurion event. As a confirmed marathon runner I popped along to the Autumn 100 last year to help pace a club mate and I had no future intention of undertaking anything longer than 26.2 miles. The efficient and friendly checkpoint in Goring village hall and countless cheering volunteers on the course unwittingly gave me an itch I wanted to scratch. Running a 38 mile ultra helped keep the pangs away but also convinced me I could go further. I absent mindedly put myself on the waiting list for the inaugural Chiltern Wonderland 50 and got on with life.
Waking up on a Sunday morning I was shocked and excited to get an email advising me I’d made the way to the top of list and a spot was mine. After securing permission from the good wife I thought I’d best sort myself some gear and start on the wonderful journey of discussing hydrostatic head and lumens level with complete strangers.
The final few days before the race and my normally relaxed approach to running had started to fade. Having a mandatory kit list makes you approach it all a bit more seriously. My race vest (a garment I didn’t even know existed a few months previously) had been packed for over a week and I’d run several long runs wearing the intended kit to practice. I was going to do this one at least half arsed, not completely arsed like most other races.
Saturday morning and I’m on the way back to Goring Village Hall, sharing a lift with two internet strangers who much to the disappointment/relief of the wife were lovely and made very little attempt to harvest my organs and leave me in a bath full of ice. My last minute indecision over road shoes versus trail shoes was settled for me when I realised I’d left the trail shoes at home by the front door where I definitely would have seen them in the morning and certainly wouldn’t have been able to walk past without noticing.
Kit inspection was efficient and organised and within minutes of entering the hall we had numbers pinned and ready to go. Drop bag stowed and majority of the pre-race toilet stops done and there was little left to do but wait. My initial plans to be done in 8 hours had already been adjusted by those on the Facebook group, so packed in one of the pockets were timings for 11 and 12 minute pace, as well as the cut-off times in case it all went horribly wrong. I’d been warned the elevation gain was pretty serious but living in Milton Keynes makes most of these figures meaningless as we don’t do inclines and complain if drop kerbs are a bit steep.
Walking over to the start after the race briefing I loaded up the course on my Garmin. In the unlikely event the almost excessive course marking wasn’t enough, then technology had my back. The claxon went and we were off to a slow and steady pace along the river bank. After 70 marathons I still set off too fast so started towards the back to hold me back. The plan for first half was ‘hold back’ and likely ‘hold on’ for the later stages. As the crowd started to thin I looked down at my watch. Garmin eagerly confirmed we’d been running for nearly 10 minutes and had covered 2 feet. It appeared I had no idea how course function worked and my super long battery life Garmin was now as much use as £5 stop watch from the market. I was fearful of restarting the watch and losing overall elapsed time, and vaguely hoping it might still be doing some recording in the background, so left it alone and started tracking on my backup Garmin, wondering how long the battery would last on that one.
The first section of the course are best described as undulating and aside from the odd cattle gate and one hill are easily runnable and a good pace can be maintained. A few stiles start to crop up as you approach the first aid station at Tokers Green and reach 10 miles. Centurion running gives you 2h40 to make it this far and I was well under. After a quick top up of fluids and first of many, many Cokes I set off again. Only 40 miles left. Further than I’ve ever run before. Thinking I best check the distance to the next station the volunteer finishes my sentence for me and confirms only 7.7 miles further. Not only do they tend to you but read your mind as well.
Stage two is more of the same in terms of terrain and scenery. When able I made a deliberate effort to take in the wonder of the British countryside and the feeling of being miles from anywhere whilst still so close to London. The stiles are starting to become more regular and after the umpteenth cattle gate I started to wish they were of a more consistent design as I flail ineffectually at yet another variation of a lock mechanism impeding my progress.
The second aid station is on Bix Common and in my haste I nearly run past it before noticing it set back off the path in the village hall. More coke and a tentative few sandwiches and crisps and I’m off again. Having been warned by more experienced runners how much time you can lose at checkpoints and how hard it is to restart if you sit down I’d elected to grab the food and eat on the hoof.
This section between Bix and Ibstone is where the bigger climbs start, with two in particular taking the breath away with both the views and the effort. A final climb out of the sleepy village of Turville towards Cobstone Windmill is particularly steep for a flatlander like me and my ambling climb with a sausage roll in hand is caught by the race photographers from their sniper like position on the hill (Fun fact – Turville was used as the filming location for the TV series, ‘Vicar of Dibley’).
These climbs are showing just how much I lack in walking speed. Being mainly a marathon runner, walking is something only ever done to chat to supporters or find a bin to deal with the gel that’s making an unpleasant re-appearance. It’s much more of an integral part of the ultra and I have one speed – really slow, like a man enjoying a leisurely lap of the local park in his lunch break. Other walkers start to pass me, apparently putting no more effort in but managing a much better return on their investment. I don’t realise it at the time but I’ll spend the rest of the race switching positions with the same few people as any gain made on my runs is eaten into and reversed during their walks.
Hitting the next checkpoint at Ibstone and we’ve covered just over half distance. Whilst chugging more coke and some orange segments that seem like fruit of the gods I overhear one of the marshals trying to talk one runner into carrying on. Each is insistent that to make it to the next aid station is inevitable/impossible and neither seem keen on changing their mind. The cut-off at this point is a generous 6h40 so the confidence stricken runner has nearly two hours to be convinced to push on and the marshal seems keen to make the most of it, having no doubt seen countless in similar predicaments and knowing which choice will see you awake the next day broken but triumphant, or just broken.
Leaving the checkpoint across some fields and into woods I have my first course issue. Somehow missing the obvious markings, I set off on what feels the write route only to have my watch beep alarmingly at me as I stray further into the woods. Turns out it’s not quite the glorified stop watch I thought, and I retrace steps back to the massive and completely impossible to miss course markings. The section between Ibstone and Swyncombe has the two biggest hills in a relatively short 9 mile section. Once again I’m passed on the climbs and make back distance on the running sections but slightly hampered by my feet starting to slip to front of the shoes on the downhills and banging off the toe box. It’s painful but my mind is soon taken off it as I enter a race of epic proportions on one of the short flat sections. I can hear another runner approaching, breathing lightly and seemingly bouncing along the ground. Every man and their dog is passing me walking, I’m not letting this happen during the run as well so lengthen my stride and attempt the closest to a fast run I can. They’re still gaining. Maybe this is the temporarily paused runner from Ibstone? The pep talk has done him well, the rest has worked and he’s cracking through the field.
As he draws level I look across to confirm. No. It’s a boy of maybe 9 out for a run with his Dad on a Saturday afternoon and he’s effortlessly chipping along at a pace neither I nor his dad dwindling in the background has a chance of matching. I’m relieved I can slow in the name of tactics and save almost face from being beaten by someone so small I could pack him in my race vest.
After a further aid station at Swyncombe I’m getting into the swing of the stops. Race vest is off and bladder is open with fresh tablets in as I reach the table, and the ever helpful staff have it filled before I can even ask. This time I stop and sit to re-tie shoes before grabbing a handful of jam wraps which have now replaced orange segments as the best food stuff on Earth. Shortly after leaving the aid station the course takes a cut through the local church and I nearly miss this in my eagerness to stuff fuel down my face.
Swyncombe to Grims Ditch is undulating but majority of climbs are short and made up by some very fast runnable downhill sections. They’re perfectly inclined to aid a decent prolonged pace without being too steep for tired legs to keep up and a good section to make some lost time up. There’s then a gentle climb up through a farm to the final aid station positioned in a turn off from the road.
More jam wraps and coke and the final section starts. 41 miles done and cut-off to this point is 10h40. Being nearly 3 hours ahead with best part of 5 hours to cover 9 miles takes my mind off the fact this is three miles further than I’ve ever run before and everything here on in is unknown. Maybe my legs will stop complaining and simply part company with me at 45 miles?
Just before my backup watch dies somewhere around 42 miles I broadly think I’m on target for just outside of 10 hours, bang on my 9-11 hour window (target would imply far more accuracy than I ever display in running). Sub-10 seems like a stretch target but achievable if I had any idea of pace or distance so resolve to wing it.
The next passing walker is working firmly in km and my hungry and tired brain can’t manage to calculate her helpful distances to any more accuracy than between five and six miles. In an attempt to get my main watch working I’ve also somehow lost the elapsed time so now have only a vague idea on distance and time by the dwindling evening sun. What a bloody amateur.
Not long after the failed feat of mental arithmetic a runner surges past and I just recognise him as the ‘nearly DNF’ from 20 miles previously. Whatever the marshal and he discussed worked well as he hares off like a scolded cat.
Two biggish climbs left to do at 43 and 45 miles but they seem achievable compared to the earlier mountains. These hills are pretty lonely and unremarkable in the local landscape. If they’d been picked up and plonked in Milton Keynes they’d be alive with runners and cyclists eager for hill reps.
With what feels like 3 miles left I pass a smiling volunteer with a cow bell, enthusiastically ringing away. I’m sure it’s the same lady from earlier in the run but it seems like a memory from the distant past when my legs worked and climbing over stiles didn’t elicit a torrent of muttered swear words as first one leg then the other refused to ascend on command.
She happily informs me it’s the final section and ‘mostly’ downhill from here so I force down one remaining sweaty shock block and set off into woods for the run back into Goring. The legs start to loosen up and I’m somewhere between disappointed and relieved that I’ll have no record of final few miles which felt like a blistering pace and not the 14min/mile they probably were. Coming into Goring I even manage to catch up to another runner as we twist through the village streets passing seemingly every pub in the area as a final cruel punishment. Whilst keen to finish I would happily punch a nun for a pint about now. Finally reaching the village hall I haven’t caught the runner in front but he’s unwittingly pulled me through the town and kept me from any religious leader battery and I’m clocked in under the 10 hours.
Once again the volunteers are brilliant and I’m almost bodily lifted from finish table, medal collection, photography and tee shirt collection. They even run off to retrieve my drop bag to save my tired legs. Short of a massage and an offer of a lift home I’m not sure they could have done more.
So my first 50 miler is finished. It was hilly and epic fun. I’ve learnt a lot and know where I need to improve. Few more marathons in between but next up is South Downs Way 50 for a more considered and planned approach before doing it all again (twice) for the South Downs Way 100.