Apologies for waffling and lack of photos on this one. I intended to take lots but mostly it was so hard I could barely think. I may have given the end away with that,
The plan (or lack of)
Entering this was a little unplanned. Fresh from success at the SDW100 a weird part of me (one of the few not in agony) decided it would be fun to do another. Having run some of the A100 whilst pacing clubmate Chris (he’s basically a bad influence) it seemed natural to want to return to scene of the crime. Checking online it was full. Relief! There was a waiting list. Hmmmm. Simply adding an email address was all it took. I stuck it down and forgot about it until one Saturday morning in September when an email arrived. A place was available. I had just 7 days to click the one-time only link to access the site and sign up.
After much debating I decided to proceed and secured the important permission from the wife. With hours to go before the window closed I logged on and entered my second 100 miler.
Not having trained specifically for this and been focusing on speed for marathons since the 100 in June I was understandably nervous. Chris assured me it would be do-able though and for once I took the advice of club coach.
Timings worked out that it would be 4 weeks after my 100th marathon and 2 weeks after Bournemouth marathon so there was no real time for distance training – I was going to have to largely wing it on fast marathon training. The transition from trying to hold steady 7:20 mile pace to something twice that would be an experience if nothing else.
The Autumn 100 isn’t the usual point to point ultra but rather a series of four out and back legs. The plus side is you get back to your drop bag every 25 miles for change of gear or dry clothes and see the other runners a lot more. The downside is you get back to your gear and can simply drop and go home….
The other issues is pacers are allowed for the second half, but only able to change at Goring so each must do a 25 mile loop. Unsurprisingly the list of people wanting to cover near marathon distance in the dark, in October, and at what would likely be an embarrassing shuffle was fairly short. In my case it was three and one thought better of it and went in for a back operation in preference. I can’t blame him.
Just prior to race weekend there was a weather warning. Storm Brian was forecast to smash the country and despite the innocuous name was promising 65mph winds and a good lashing of rain. Ideal. It was enough for some of the Saturday events at Great South run to be cancelled. They’re softies, we’re not. The prospect of weather was playing on my mind a lot. I wasn’t really trained, had a hard week at work and could still feel the previous two marathon PB attempts in my legs. Despite a lot of miles I’ve seldom had to bother about rain. Run fast enough and get the marathon done quicker and get dry. That won’t work for this race.
Implementing the (lack of) plan
Saturday arrived and I’m up early waiting at the end of the drive for a lovely chap called Dominic to pick me up. He’s volunteering to earn his place for next year so happy to give me a lift. Downside is we need to leave early for his slot. Laden down with far too much stuff (the weather forecast scared me to the point I may be carrying enough gear to do a full kit change every mile) we set off. Biggest disaster of the journey is the first McDonalds we reach is closed. Luckily the second is open and I can fuel up for the race with some stodge.
Getting to Goring village hall early means I can register (once they open) and go through the rituals of taping toes, applying lube and then sit in a corner and try and doze. It gradually fills up and then time for the safety briefing. Main points are – it’s going be windy on the Ridge, and in your face uphill. A headwind uphill at mile 50+ is exactly what you don’t need.
During briefing I bump into some Bad Boy Running podcast listeners, including Allie on her first 100 miles who despite seemingly running an event most weeks is so nervous you could bottle it. We wander to the start down by the river ready for the run to Little Wittenham. After a short delay we’re off. Unbeknown to me that few minutes will prove crucial later.
Chatting to a few other runners we set off at a steady pace. The start is really congested so if you’re aiming for a good time you really need to get to the front. After the first few miles I regret shoe choice. Leg 1 is flattish so I stuck to road shoes and I’m slipping a lot. But then so are most people on the inch thick slime. I also intermittently regret my clothing choice. The bright sun with occasional icy gusts means I alternate from cold to hot regularly and feel like I have the flu. Then I recall how many people at work have been sick the previous week and wonder if I do actually have the flu. Great.
In a master stroke of navigation, I go wrong at mile 6 as I’m blindly following the runners in front. Fortunately, some runners see the signs and direct us down a dodgy alley back on route. On the return leg I see Allie is not far behind and greets me with a “F*ck you buddy” (the customary greeting of Bad Boy Runners) my brain is too fuddled by now to get mouth in gear so I respond with a pathetic “Hi ya” or similar and miss out a prime opportunity to swear in the company of puzzled runners.
Having only done the SDW100 before I’ve worked off expected paces from that and for the first 25 miles I’m broadly on course. Ideally I’d wanted faster over a flatter course and briefly held ambitions of a something sub 23hrs, but lack of endurance training is showing. I’m knackered. Far more tired than I expect after 25 miles. Work and life has meant I’ve arrived tired and undertrained. I expected the ultra to have sections where it wasn’t enjoyable I didn’t expect it to start so soon. Even more worrying given the weather is basically glorious.
A thought process that started with me realising that this event would see me hit my monthly mileage target and take a wonderful nine days off running swiftly deviates to how great it would be to drop now and go home and not have to run this weekend any more. It degrades further into thoughts of giving up running forever and just staying in the warm watching telly and getting fat. Running is stupid. Runners are stupid. I want to stop.
A brief sprinkle of rain on the final few metres into Goring is a welcome relief and fearing any ill-considered decisions to drop if I stay in the aid station too long I decline my kit bag from the excellent volunteers and head back out onto leg 2 after a swift coffee that I once again manage to mostly pour down myself from the stupid plastic cup. I carried the cup all along the SDW100 without using it as a hot drink seemed heresy in the heat. Today it’s getting a real use and I’m wishing I carried a proper mug.
Out for leg 2 towards Swyncombe. I’ve resolved to keep at it. Jen is coming to pace me for leg 3 so just need to get through 25 miles. Fortunately, they are glorious miles. After a few miles through houses we’re out into woods and protected from the increasing windy gusts. As with most ultras you see the same few people again and again as you leapfrog each other. Jazzy calf guard man passes me, swiftly followed by yellow arm man. He’s either got jaundice or a very asymmetric running top.
At mile 30 a marshal directs me across a busy road and then greets me enthusiastically. Being rubbish with faces and names I’m struggling to place her and thankfully just before greeting her with a very ill placed swear word laden phrase she reminds me. It’s Helen who gave me a lift to and from the CW50 last year (my first 50 miler and another “picked up by a random internet runner and hope they don’t kill you” friendship). Full of enthusiasm she recounts how much she enjoyed the A100 last year and how the next section coming up is amazing.
Helen wasn’t wrong and running along Grim’s Ditch on a beautifully dry and hard packed path, dodging trees is the high point of the race. At mile 31 the lead runners come past on their return leg. They’re on 44 miles, so nearly a half marathon ahead already. I could catch them on a quad bike I reckon.
The turnaround at Swycombe is in a van due to the wind. It’s a sensible option rather than gazebos but a little cramped. I manage to pour most of my coffee over again and struggle to find a foodstuff I can eat. My cast iron stomach is not liking the look of anything today. The volunteers have done a great job of decorating it in a Halloween theme so I grab some “Trick Or Treat” Haribo and with half cup of coffee in hand I’m off. I later learn the reason for the Haribo naming as I find a pepper flavour one that takes me by surprise but raises a giggle.
Allie is seemingly gaining on me as it’s not far before the turn around I see her and then Steve who is striding purposely towards his sub24hr that eluded him before. They both look strong. I mostly feel like I want to be sick.
The run back down Grim’s Ditch is marred by stubbing my toe on a rock and the resultant jolt causes me to jar my back and it’s several minutes before I can do much more than walk. I’m falling apart way too early. What else could go wrong? How about cramp? My right quad seizes up mid-run and I grab a passing tree for support. I’ve not really been eating or drinking well, and that includes my s-caps so take a couple and it passes. Now to concentrate on running and getting as many daylight miles in as possible.
I just make it North Stoke as dusk settles and do two things I’ve never done at an ultra (or any race) before. My guts have been churning and I’m hoping a visit to the facilities will sort stuff out. It doesn’t. So I sit down on an actual chair and eat. Jelly and rice pudding is forced down. Guts still not happy but push on for the final few miles to Goring hoping I’ll see my hat I lost on the out leg. I don’t find the hat but do find Jen waiting for me at the aid station. I change gear, tape my toe that seems to be rubbing and force down baked beans.
Leg 3 is the one I’ve been fearing most. It’s where I paced Chris before and running up the ridge in the late afternoon sun on fresh legs was a pleasurable experience and only with 50 miles in his legs to the edge off his performance am I able to keep up with him comfortably. Now I’m the one who’s lost their edge (if I ever had one today), trudging up in the dark with a belly that feels like it’s due to explode from either end and running into a headwind with the prospect of rain. Jen does a sterling effort to keep my spirits up but it’s hard to motivate someone broken, especially when the wind whips through most conversations cutting the dialogue in two. If the wind gets up much further I might have to tether her to something heavy.
I’d been looking forward to Bury Downs aid station as Lou (another Bad Boy Runner) was manning it. Unfortunately, brain is so fuddled I can’t quite comprehend anything or anyone much and muddle through. All it wants to do is remind me how good walking feels. Every time I do walk I get cold and have to adjust layers. Then when reminded by an increasingly frozen Jen “to try for a little jog” I get too hot and have to adjust again. Fortunately, an oasis appears ahead. Either the aid station is decorated like a disco or we’re about to disturb the least subtle dogging site in history. The marshal advises me I’m in 48th position. Jen is even more shocked than me that such an appalling lack-lustre performance could get me so high. How badly must everyone else be suffering?
The run back down the ridge should be quick but legs are really not keen on running. Each time I stop for a wee or to contemplate the pointless of existence Jen has to add another layer from her bag to avoid certain death. If we’re out here much longer she may end up wearing every item of running gear she owns and some of mine on top.
The only problem I’ve yet to experience so far on the run is falling over or a painful stitch so fate deals a happy hand and I get a stabbing stitch that hurts to run. Fortunately it passes as even exercise-related transient abdominal pain (ETAP, see you learn something every day?) doesn’t want to be out on the ridge today.
Finally I make it back to Goring for the penultimate time. Jen has endured the slowest 25 miles she’s ‘run’ in her illustrious running career and is well past her bedtime. I’ve got 8hrs to do the final 25 miles. It sounds a breeze. First few minutes are spent eating cup-a-soup then it’s farewell to Jen and off again. My Leg 4 pacer has had to drop out so it’s just me and a jaunt to Reading. Goal is 3.5hrs for the out giving me some scope to slow on return.
The section covers some of the same path as the CW50 so I broadly know it. Not well enough to avoid slipping and landing on all fours in thick mud, jarring the entire top half of my body. At least I’ve ticked off the ‘final things that can go wrong on a run’ item. I can hear other runners behind so if only to avoid been known as “that runner who fell over and lay there crying all night” I get up and push on. Less than half a mile without grown up supervision and I’ve fallen like a toddler.
Somewhere in the woods we climb a set of steps so steep they should provide a stairlift, or so says my legs. After some forest trails we’re out on the roads and heading into Whitchurch. It’s now so late I run down the middle of roads, cutting any distance where possible and figuring getting hit by a car would be a guaranteed route to a comfy bed.
Just before I fly past a turn off a marshal charged with directly people to the aid station very quietly points me in the right direction. The task of directing tired runners whilst making almost no noise to appease the neighbours is a tricky one. Coming out the aid station I amaze myself with navigating what seems a tricky series of turns through a graveyard. I’m a master of navigation and I also pick up the turn off after Whitchurch bridge. Sadly this is where my skills flounder and I wander about in the dark trying to pick up the route and repeatedly missing the big arrow on the floor directing me onto the Thames Path. There are no other runners around so I run to the river and turn in what feels the right direction until I see some marker tape.
The path is flat, mostly grass or smooth footpaths. I’m grinding out the miles at a heady speed of 15min/miles if I concentrate. It seems to be a popular misconception than 4 miles an hour, or 15min/miles is a steady walk. It bloody isn’t for me and the only way I can keep the pace is by pushing on with an awkward forward leaning run, ticking off the miles and making sure the mile marker beeps with each fifteen minute segment. My main Garmin died around the same time my dignity did as I fell in the mud so I’m on the backup one. Although I started at bang on 75 miles I have no idea on the time, only that I have 8hrs less however long it takes a tired man to eat a soup to make about 25 miles and sub24hr.
Just after a lock the course leaves the Thames and approaches civilisation. It’s a welcome sight as too many hours of concentrating on a small circle of light is mind numbing. I’m fortunate to be caught by one of the regular leapfrog runners and his pacer who help direct me along the seemingly random turning through a fairly bland 1970s housing development. Without assistance I would have assumed I’d gone well off course. Instead I can just blindly run down the centre of the roads wishing I was wrapped up in bed like those in the houses we pass.
We reach a bridge that takes us up over the railway line. James had mentioned something about a bridge and the final turn-around instructions during the briefing that seems a lifetime ago. Is it this one? Sadly not. We’re greeted by a sign welcoming us to Reading and we’re back on the side of the Thames for more dark running and root tripping.
I’m sure this section of the Thames Path is lovely in the daylight. Sadly at night it has all the appeal of a muddy track between the icy waters of the Thames and a graffiti covered railway line. It’s the sort of venue you expect to come across scene of crime tape and later see on the news captioned by “Dog walkers find body by river”.
The path eventually widens out and we run along the waterfront through Reading. A couple of drunks sat on a bench offer nothing more threatening than some slurred support which is handy as I’m in no fit state to out-run, out-fight or out-think them.
I pray every bridge I see come into view is THE bridge. They’re not. Returning runners advise it’s about 2 miles more so further death march on. Finally we pass a Tesco (closed) and hit a bridge taking us over the River Kennett as it joins the Thames and a final run into the aid station which for comedy is situated at the top of Wokingham Waterside Centre.
The atmosphere in the room is an odd mixture of relief to have made it to the final turnaround and an unwillingness to go back out in the cold and dark to finish it. General consensus of the assembled runners is the out leg has been long at 13.1 miles (by Garmin) to make up for earlier short legs so we have 4.5hrs to do a half marathon and break 24 hours. Mentally I work out to add about 2h20 to my Garmin elapsed time to give me time of day and I need to pace to 25.6 miles by the reading. Simple sums that will try my patience several times over the rest of the run.
Still being unable to eat and not having much stomach for drink I’m mostly running on fumes so head out quickly ahead of the other runners who inevitably pass me never to be seen again. Within barely a mile I see Allie coming the other way, paced by Lee and looking fresh and chirpy. It’s sickening how well some people look, especially on their first 100 miler. Still a good excuse for some random swearing at runners.
Heading back through the houses the sun starts to rise and spirts magically lift. I’m greeting every outward runner I pass with encouragement, knowing all too well how much the “murder by the railway line” section will suck their enthusiasm.
Reaching the Thames again and running in the morning sun through the fields the past 20hrs seem to evaporate and I alternate between singing (Boo Radleys- Wake up its a beautiful morning, over and over again) and talking with the wildlife “Good morning Mr Swan, how are you today?”, “Hello Mrs Cow you look very fluffy this fine morning”. Then I break out in tears of relief that despite an awful performance I’m still on for the better buckle. Big sobbing, choking tears like winners at academy awards. It’s probably for the best I never win one of these events or I might drown the poor RD at the award presentation.
Eventually I get back to the final aid station and check in. I’ve got around 4.5 miles left and I think about two hours left to break 24. I could literally walk it, even at my geriatric, embarrassing the wife in Tesco pace. Briefly I consider pushing harder and getting sub 23. Sure it wouldn’t beat my 22hr22min time at SDW100 but would at least be in the same time bracket. Yep I’m going for it. Miles of death march are done with and now I’m going to run because I’m a bloody runner not a sodding hiker. I keep it up for nearly 40 metres before I hit a hill and start walking. Damn it, pass the hiking boots and woolly hats.
Leaving the village there’s a long straight lane and I can sustain a shuffle. It’s not pretty and I pass the only runner I’ve seen looking worse than me. He’s knackered his leg so is limping it home. Heading down the dreaded steps I elicit a new curse each step taken. There must be only a few miles left so I ditch excess fluids, keeping just enough for an emergency. That 500g saved will make not a jot of difference given I’m carrying the world’s supply of coke in my distended belly and probably 10kg of my own ‘cushioning’.
The woods sections has some long and straight periods and I keep checking over shoulder to see if anyone is gaining. I’m confident the gap behind is now enough I don’t need to push. Sub23 was a stupid idea anyway. 23:10/23:15 will be fine. Nicely sub24 and the quicker I am the longer I’ll need to wait for the family who are coming for me at 10am anyway.
I settle into an ambling rhythm enjoying the beautiful morning and route, greeting some walkers and likely scaring them with my overflowing enthusiasm for their dogs. At this point everything is literally awesome. I hold myself back from singing the Lego theme tune. Storm Brian has blown away the clouds and it’s a perfect autumnal day.
Passing through a cattle gate I hear the familiar clatter as it closes behind. Turning the corner I hear it again. Someone is chasing me down. After 23 hours I am not prepared to be passed again so I pick up my feet and break into the shuffle. We’re going to have a shuffle off if they want to pass. With each successive gate I pass there’s a gap of a few seconds and then a repeated clatter. They’re gaining so I push on a bit more, grateful for the support from the fisherman out setting up for a competition. Fishing sounds like a nice relaxed hobby with no falling over, stitches, exploding belly, leg cramps or the other side effects of running.
From memory I’m now out of gates so the only warning of an impending runner will be his or her hot breath in my ear. Run. It’s too twisty and too many trip hazards to risk a proper look back and end up in the Thames. Finally I can see the bridge in the distance and I’m on a straight section of path. I look back to see exactly no one following me. The sum total of zero runners are behind. I’ve imagined the whole episode and been in a torturous embarrassment of a sprint finish with my own stupid head.
Cheered on by a dog walker I leave the path and run up to the village hall, confident the pursuing runner can’t catch me now as they don’t even exist. Triumphantly I check in and the sub24 buckle that has been keeping me going for 8hrs (probably the whole way given how early the pain came) is pressed into my hands. I’m all out of tears so sit numbly on a chair as Lou attempts to force a sausage at me. Despite an horrendous run I’ve broken 24hrs and by a decent margin. By my reckoning I’m around 23hr20, so an hour slower than SDW100 but pleased to finish.
Only later after congratulating both Allie and Steve on their sub 24hr finish do I discover via a Facebook post my finish time. 22:59:42. The combination of two Garmins, a late start, inability to do simple maths whilst tired and a fictitious chasing runner have combined to scrape me under 23 by the narrowest of margins.