Who actually races 100 miles….? Surely these events shouldn’t have close finishes, they are reserved for the shorter sprints like marathons aren’t they? Apparently not…. Especially when you compete in a high quality field like the one that assembled on the start line of the Thames Path 100 in Richmond.
The pre race preview had hinted that there could be fireworks in both the mens and womens race’s this year and thankfully for me it didn’t disappoint. Although stood on the start line next to Peter Windross, Paul Beechey, Paul Ali and Jay Macdonald with John Melbourne and Craig Holgate lurking elsewhere in the throng of runners I would never have believed you if you had told me how the day was going to turn out.
As those of you who have run an ultra will know more often than not they don’t go to plan, but sometimes, just sometimes they go perfectly and you achieve things that you never thought possible. Stood on that start line listening to James Elson’s amusing race briefing I secretly hoped that today would be my day.
The early stages of the race unfolded exactly as expected with Craig Holgate disappearing off into the distance and a couple of possible contenders in Ed Catmur and Paul Radford leading the chase. I settled comfortably into a group alongside Paul Beechey who I had ran with at Spartathlon in 2017 and we spent the next few miles catching up and reminiscing. Beechey spent sometime sandbagging, telling me that his knee was ruined and that he wouldn’t make the end, but I knew how tough he was and the fact that we were running so smoothly told me that he would be in the mix later in the race.
Reaching Walton a small group of 4 had formed and we were chasing Ed Catmur who was in 2nd place. The running felt easy and I wasn’t paying too much attention to the pace. I felt comfortable and was bang on my race plan. After a couple of miles 4 became 2 as Beechey and I pursued Ed, before we knew it we were in second and third place and still moving well. Then 2 became 1 as Paul decided that he was working a little too hard and slowed around the 18 mile mark.
Oli and Kirsty were at Staines and I quickly grabbed some food and my handheld bottle not wanting to dwell for too long. I find it really beneficial to have a crew during these long races as often I spend long periods running on my own. The Aid stations at Centurion events are frequent, well stocked, and staffed by lovely volunteers who can never do too much for you, but it is always a bonus to know that friendly faces are waiting for you in between. Kirsty and Oli were crewing me for the first time, and were there for the long haul. They would be joined by my good buddy and fellow Spartathlete Matt Blackburn at Maidenhead and then he and Oli would share pacing duties from Henley onwards.
Wraysbury aid station came and went quickly before I received the shock of my life… there was Craig Holgate. We were approaching 24 miles and I could see the leader. Was he struggling? Was I running too fast? These were questions that went through my head. Drew Sheffield was out marking the course and told me I looked strong as I ran by although I shouted ‘yes but why am I so close to him??’ pointing up ahead to Craig. Within a mile I had caught and passed him and now I was in the lead… at 25 miles I was where truthfully I didn’t want to be and that was right at the front of the field. I was now the hunted rather than the hunter and there was over three quarters of the race to go. I tried to tell myself to relax and just go with it, I was still on pace and running to plan. Just before I reached Windsor I started to feel a bit nauseous, and I realised the Tailwind and my fuel balls weren’t going down too well. I managed to force down some Belvita soft bake that settled nicely and then at the Dorney Aid station I grabbed a cup of coke and a Jam sandwich, little did I know at the time but this was to become my go to fuel for the rest of the race.
There was no sign of Craig behind me, and I had no idea how big the gap was to the rest of the field, but at that point I didn’t care. I just wanted to get to Maidenhead as I had run the course from there until the end and I had also decided that I needed to ditch the tailwind and switch to High 5 zero tabs. Kirsty and Oli did just that when I reached them, switching all my bottles whilst Oli told me I was looking strong and reminding me that I was on my ‘risky’ strategy in terms of pace and time.
I hadn’t really paid much attention to my watch. I was just running and I felt that it was best to continue with this strategy. My crew were doing a fantastic job of being where I needed them to be and Matt had now joined them. Kirsty was telling me to eat and drink and I was doing my best to listen although I’m not sure she believed I was.
The stretch between 44 – 51 miles was a tough one mentally, and I always find that the case in 100 mile races. You have already run a long way but still have over half the distance to cover. Just as I was at my lowest a hail storm hit, but every cloud has a silver lining. Mother Nature as if knowing I just needed a little pick-me up blessed me with a tailwind into Henley with each gust pushing me closer to my crew.
There were lots of friendly faces at the aid station and it was great to be welcomed in by James Elson, Dan Lawson, Alex Whearity and Leanne Stocker who both looked after me well. I grabbed my Jam butties and a coke and then was off.
Oli told me there was a significant gap to second place although at the time I had no idea what that was. It turns out that it was 20 minutes, which I am not sure with 49 miles left to run is that significant. I’d of preferred 2 hours!! It was great to finally have someone to chat to again and although I wasn’t exactly Mr Conversation I tried my best. At times Oli and I really pushed the pace and we reached Reading in no time at all. I had a quick chat with Drew as I grabbed another sandwich and then it was off again to Pangbourne, where I expected Dad to be waiting for me.
Sure enough there he was, sat on a bench filming me running across the field and almost being mowed down by a renegade walker with a buggy! Fellow 2019 Spartathlete Sarah Sawyer was also there with her two dogs, waiting to pace her friend and it was a big lift to see them both.
Oli had done a great job pacing me, he had been positive and encouraging and I was hugely grateful, but now it was up to Matt and I to bring it home. I desperately wanted that trophy but I was going to have to earn it. Matt gave it to me straight. ‘John Melbourne is 20 minutes behind and running a consistent pace, he and Beechey were together for a while’….
In all honesty this wasn’t the news I wanted. I had hoped to have a bigger buffer by 66 miles so now it was time to get the head down and grind it out. The miles ticked by steadily and I felt that we were moving well, at Streatley Michelle Payne who I had paced at GUCR (2017) and A100 (2018), welcomed us and gave me a big hug before kicking me out of the door, and then at Wallingford Francis Graham Dixon was there to give me another huge hug and as I left he told me to go win the race… It was humbling the faith that everyone seemed to have in me and I tried to use that as much as I could.
Matt drove me on, telling me to eat and then pushing the pace. We have trained together a fair bit over the last couple of years and so Matt knew exactly what I needed to hear. I was just focusing on each little section now… ticking off the aid stations and the crew points, knowing that each step was taking me closer to the finish. We were moving so well that I assumed we were building the gap, surely there was no way the guys behind were running this fast.
At 85 miles my friend Victoria had come out to support me which I appreciated hugely and she was there waiting with my Dad. Vicky had bought me some sprite and a selection of other snacks; however I was only interested in Jam Sandwiches, Coke and a couple of glugs of the magic sprite. Vicky was keen to make sure I ate something else and seemed intent on giving Matt a pack of Oreo’s just in case I wanted them later… I was so out of it that I thought she was handing him a packet of wet wipes, so I asked if I was covered in snot or something!!
I was conscious of John chasing me and didn’t want to give him any sort of boost, so I was keen to get our head-torches out of site before eating my jam sandwiches so we pushed the pace away from Clifton Hampden before slowing to consume the food.
As we reached Cullum (89 miles) Kirsty told Matt that John was only 9 minutes behind us and closing fast, Matt relayed this message to me and frankly we couldn’t believe it. We both thought we had been running well and that there was no chance of anyone catching us. It just goes to show the calibre of the competition at Centurion Events and the class of John himself, who was having a storming race and being driven on by his own pacer Tremayne Cowdrey.
Matt kept offering me the oreos, but I was in no mood for those… telling him that I was going to shove them up his a** if he offered them to me one more time!! All I wanted was coke and jam sandwiches!! Vicky had the sandwiches waiting for me at Abingdon and Matt grabbed me a cup of coke whilst I checked with VLT how big the gap was, only for her to confirm it was 9 minutes, so without further ado I was off, I honestly wasn’t sure I could run any faster. Matt and I then had a brief domestic as he tried to get me to drink the coke whilst I just wanted to run…‘just chuck it’ I shouted as I headed off.. ‘No you need to drink this, you need the fuel’… I think by the time he reached me the cup was only half full.
In my head all that mattered now was running. I had to give this absolutely everything and if John was good enough to catch me then fair play. I had one hand on that trophy and I didn’t want to let it go. So we ran and we didn’t stop, we flew through Lower Radley, ‘are you ready to give the best 4.5 miles of your life’ Matt asked…. ‘no… but I’ll give the best 4.5 miles that I can’ was my answer.. and boy they turned out to be 4 pretty good miles as I averaged 7:44 mpm for those last 5. There wasn’t much talking there was just running and racing…. I was racing the last 5 miles of a 100 mile event!!
I asked and my legs responded, we hit the tarmac just outside Oxford and there was no sign of any head torch behind me, I didn’t let up though and there was no celebration, I wouldn’t believe it until I made the finish. We passed the rowing clubs and I could see the cricket pitch on the left, one last check behind me and then Matt and I had a little fist bump before turning into the field and sprinting towards that finish line. Even as I crossed the line I couldn’t believe it….. James gave me a huge bear hug as did Nici and they asked if I’d like a few minutes to recover. Honestly all I wanted was Nici to Kit check me as soon as possible just so I knew nothing had fallen out of my pack… I truly believed I’d get a time penalty or something silly like that.
There was time to hug all my crew and supporters first though and most importantly my dad who at 78 years old had driven all the way from Hereford just to watch me compete and I was so glad to be able to share this special moment with him. He is my number 1 fan and he inspires me to be better.
As we sat going through kit check, James Elson told me my finish time… I hadn’t looked at my watch for so long and I had no idea, so when he said it I didn’t believe him. I think I surprised everyone including myself by arriving so soon. Dan Lawson congratulated me and then finally it was time to grab my trophy…
This was a moment that I had been waiting for, and I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. I can’t describe the feeling I had and I still don’t think it has sunk in……..
I’m writing the words but I don’t believe them… I ran 14:36:25 (the second fastest time ever on the course) and I am the TP100 champion for 2019……. Wow!!!!!
Thank you to everyone who supported me throughout the day, and I can only apologise to anyone whose name I have omitted.
Thank you to all the centurion staff and volunteers for looking after all the runners so well and also thank you for all the kind messages I have received following the race.
I am truly humbled by all of them.
Now it’s time to rest and recover before rivalries are resumed on the South Downs Way on June 8th!!!