After I DNF’d at Wendover Woods in July due to injury and subsequently had to withdraw from the North Downs Way 100 in August (ending my GS attempt) I wanted to end my season by completing the Triple Crown of Centurion 100’s (TP100, SDW100, A100) and also complete my full set of Centurion 100 buckles. So seeing as I hadn’t run for a while I thought that it would be a good idea to turn the legs over at the Autumn 100 last weekend.
I had no expectations for the event, in fact I didn’t expect to finish. I just wanted to have fun and run without any pressure, I wanted to catch up with friends and if by some miracle I finished the race then that would be a bonus. In fact I was so convinced that I wouldn’t finish that I hadn’t asked anyone to act as a pacer for me on leg 3 and 4, although I had joked with Victoria that she might have to help me out if I made it that far.
Considering what I had put my body through only 2 weeks before in Greece, many people thought I was completely bonkers for even putting myself on the start line. In fact during the week Drew Sheffield even messaged me to check whether I was running or not. I told him that I would be there, however under no circumstances was I going to be racing. I was turning up for a bit of a social bimble and intended to just try and have fun with like minded people. I even told him that I was pleased to have been left off the race preview that had been released that day!
Therefore imagine my surprise when the following day my friend Michelle messaged me to say that I had been mentioned in the pre race preview, although she was more concerned that they were telling everyone that I had finished 7th at Spartathlon, and not 6th!! It turns out the lovely people at Centurion had edited the race preview and added me onto it…. doh!!!!! Thanks guys… no pressure then!!
A100 is the one centurion 100 miler where you are prohibited from having any crew and due to the nature of the course you can cope without one quite easily, however it is always nice to see a friendly face out on the course so I knew that Victoria was going to make an effort to pop up and cheer me on at various places along the route.
Dad would be watching from mission control at home in Hereford, following both the live results feed on the centurion website and also tracking me step by step via the race director tracker/tracking link. I know he was disappointed he couldn’t come to support me in person, but wearing a tracker allowed him to accurately follow my progress and feel involved. After all it wouldn’t be a Centurion event without Papa H on board.
Kit Check was passed (including a hug and a telling off from Russ Tullett for even considering running!), race registration was completed, and then a few ‘hello, what are you doing here’s’ were exchanged. I then ambled down to the start with the intention of starting right at the back of the field. I found Darren Strachan and stood chatting to him before the inevitable countdown began… Then we were off and running…… well for about 200m as then we ground to a halt and Darren said with a smile ‘welcome to the back of the field’. There was huge bottleneck as 280 runners attempted to squeeze through a narrow gate on the Thames Path before continuing their journey. Usually I am at the front in these events and in such a hurry that I don’t get the chance to appreciate these moments and I enjoyed every minute of it.
After we’d negotiated the gate we were able to start running again and I gradually began to skip past people on the path. I enjoyed chatting to various runners who I had not met before as well as those who I knew. Spencer Millberry celebrated overtaking me twice, I had a lovely chat with Keith Simpson, chatted to a guy called Rob who was a mate of someone that I had run Spartathlon with, I caught up to Sharon Dickson who was attempting to complete the 100 mile GS, and then I had the pleasure of chatting to a chap called Oliver. Magda also gave me a few words of encouragement as I jogged past her and there were so many others that I said hello too and shared a few minutes with. This was exactly why I had come to do this event.
Surprisingly my legs felt fine and I caught Rusty Rusk and Dom Garvey shortly before Wallingford and it was great to see them both moving so well, we were joined by June Harrison and I managed to stop them and a few others missing the turn in Wallingford. A small group ahead had missed the right turn through the alleyway, so I shouted up to them to turn around, luckily my loud bellowing voice came in handy. Rusty commented ‘you’ve got a pair of lungs on you, haven’t you?!’ I’m sure Nici would agree as she is always telling me to be quiet when I volunteer at kit check in the morning’s!!
At Wallingford aid station a lovely chap made me a jam sandwich to go, and I took my time to munch on it before setting off after everyone again. It didn’t take long for me to catch back up to Rusty and Dom, who in turn had caught up to Michelle who I had paced at this event last year. We exchanged a little bit of banter before I gradually eased away from them. I was trying to run slowly and take my time, conscious that I would regret it later if I didn’t.
At Benson Victoria was waiting for me and so was Stuart March.. well he was waiting for everyone (not just me), and I was glad to get my customary high five from him….
Luckily the weather wasn’t being too unkind to us, however underfoot conditions were less than ideal and the foot injury that I had sustained a couple of months ago was starting to niggle. I wasn’t a fan of the sopping wet mud and neither was my foot, but it was what it was and we all had to cope with the same conditions. It certainly was a change from the 35 degree heat I had experienced in Greece two week earlier.
I really enjoyed that first 12.5 miles out to Little Wittenham, with Drew Sheffield cheekily suggesting that I was on sub 16hr pace when I arrived. I grabbed some food and then turned to head back to Goring, cheering other runners along as they came past. High fives of varying quality were exchanged when possible and before I knew it I was sneaking up on Stuart March again for another action shot.
Victoria then almost missed me at Benson as she had surprised me slightly earlier on the return leg, however traffic had then been bad and she had struggled to get back to the marina. Luckily for her I had stopped for a quick toilet break otherwise she would of missed me completely as I was starting to steadily move up the field.
Leg one had been everything I had hoped it would be. I had chatted to lots of people and the miles had flown by. Best of all was the fact that my legs weren’t grumbling too much and I had no doubts about heading out on leg two.
In fact I was in and out of Goring relatively quickly, as Nici hurried me out of the door.. I think she thought I needed to be in a rush and so I actually forgot to do half the things I wanted to do to keep me going! There was time for Russell Tullett to again tell me off for not being at the back of the field like I had said, and also for me to say a quick hello to Paul Rowlinson who was about to do some course marking.
I was looking forward to running leg two as it is the only leg of this race that I hadn’t done before. I was moving pretty well and my legs seemed to be cooperating, well for the time being at least. It wasn’t long before I caught up to Eddie Sutton and we had a brief chat about how we occupy our minds when there is still a long way to go and we are feeling tired. I find that just trying to clear my mind and zone out helps during these times, and I also tell myself that I have run on tired legs before so I can do it again… Different methods work for different runners, it isn’t a one size fits all strategy.
North Stoke aid station came and went and then the gradual climb towards Swyncombe started… To my surprise I spotted Laura Swanton up ahead, but I was really glad of the company even though I knew she must be struggling. I tried to be positive and lift her spirits and I enjoyed sharing a few miles with her. We even got to do our best ‘Sarah Morwood’s’ in tandem as we crossed the road and traversed the field at Nuffield where Stuart March was waiting for us.
I gradually began to pull away from Laura and arrived at the aid station ahead of her. I spotted the most delicious looking chocolate brownie, and shook the man who made it by the hand before helping myself to the largest piece I could see. I left the aid station chomping the brownie, and immediately realised that I should have picked up two bits as it was an absolute taste sensation. In fact it was so good that I almost turned round and went back for another bit…. even now I regret not doing so!!!
It was now a gentle downhill back to Goring, and I enjoyed exchanging pleasantries and high fives again with my fellow runners heading in the opposite direction. They were all absolute warriors and giving it their best. One more photo from Stuart March and then Victoria was waiting to cheer me on again. She had already been a real superstar popping up so much to encourage me and I am very grateful for all the effort she put in. I knew that I was starting to get tired though, so I said to her ‘get your running shoes on, I need some company for leg 3!’.. I’m not sure she was impressed by this request…
It was now time to dig in and just get back to the Village Hall. Just as I arrived at North Stoke another runner was leaving, and that gave me a little extra motivation as I had someone to chase which took my mind off my heavy legs. At the end of leg 1 I had been in 22nd position and as I reached the end of leg 2 I had moved up to 15th.. not that I knew it. So much for hovering at the back for the whole race. No wonder I was spending an increasing amount of time on my own.
I changed my shoes before heading out leg 3 as I had started to feel some hot spots and also the Helios are not the best on rocky terrain. I opted for my Hoka Speedgoats and was pleased with the choice as I could hardly feel the rocks on my already battered feet.
It was a long slog up to Chain Hill, where there is usually an all night party going on… and this year wouldn’t be any different. Victoria had politely declined accompanying me by not changing into her running gear so it was a case of getting it done on my own. I knew that I was going to find it tough as I was starting to feel very tired and didn’t really want to be running on my own.
I had never imagined that I would make it to leg three, let alone be starting it after only 8 hours of running……
This did mean that I had the bonus of starting the leg in the light, so could appreciate some of the views across the Ridgeway before darkness fell, and it was nice to make some progress before getting the head torch out. Somehow I managed to catch Amy Sarkies just after the aid station and we ran together pretty much all the way to Chain Hill. I was grateful for the company of her and her brother in law (who had crewed out in Sparta this year). The chat took my mind off how tired I was feeling and ensured that I ran more than I walked. In fact both Amy and I were hoping for a really steep incline as an excuse to take a break from running… suffice to say it never came!
After what seemed like an age we reached Chain Hill, just as the weather really started to close in. I suddenly felt a bit dizzy when I stopped, and was a little disorientated, however I think I hid it well from the volunteers. I had the standard cup of coke and then took longer to decide between the carrot cake and the chocolate cake than I should of. I opted for Chocolate and whilst it was delicious I regretted not taking some carrot cake for the return journey. After all it may well have been another taste sensation like the brownie… and now I will never know.
I stopped to put my waterproof on as well as my buff and gloves and whilst I did this Amy pulled away from me. It was the last I was to see of her, as she had a storming run to finish in 8th place and take home the winners trophy in her first 100 miler. This coincided with my biggest low as I think the enormity of everything was catching up with me and I began to feel quite emotional. I also felt like it took forever to get to Bury Down where VLT was waiting for me. I wasn’t in a good place when I arrived and I mumbled to Vicky that I really felt like jacking it in once I got back to Goring.
I was sure that it was going to take me hours to get back even though it was mostly downhill and I just couldn’t face another 25 miles.
I just kept putting one foot in front of the other, drawing strength from the encouragement offered by my fellow runners as they headed in the opposite direction. The ground was sodden and each step was a real effort, my legs felt like lead weights, and yet they still responded when I asked them to move. I’ll be honest at that point I just wanted to go home and couldn’t help but think ‘what on earth was I doing out here in the pouring rain two weeks after finishing one of the toughest ultra’s on the planet’.
I kept saying to myself; ‘just get back to Goring and then you can stop’… ’75 miles is a pretty decent effort’… ‘nothing to be ashamed of’…. Gradually as I descended the hill back towards Streatley my stance began to soften. I was still managing to run quite a bit and although I was tired, there were people who were suffering far more than me and they were still going. In fact some of them had only just started leg 3 so I told myself I needed to man up and get on with it. If I could run down to the Village Hall then I could damn well make it to Reading and back especially with a pacer.
Just as I reached the Bull pub I heard ‘Ian is that you!!’ from someone stood on the corner. It took me a while to realise it was my friend Sandy who had come to support Michelle. She enveloped me in a massive hug and even offered me a swig of beer… which I declined as that would be seen as outside aid… and also I don’t drink. I think that I mumbled how pleased I was to see her and then apologised that I had to get going and couldn’t hang around. It gave me such a boost to see her and helped switch my mind back on a little bit.
Victoria was changed and ready to go when I arrived back at Goring, and whilst several volunteers leapt to ask me if I wanted anything, I just needed a minute. I was running on fumes and I honestly didn’t know if I could finish the last leg. I had to compose myself and get a grip. Francis Dixon also popped over to say Hi, and I’m sorry to say that I just didn’t have the energy to really acknowledge him.. (apologies Francis).. Victoria was patient with me and then just as we were getting ready to leave, Nici popped over with a message that stayed with me for those last 25 miles..’be kind to yourself on this leg Ian, you’ve asked a lot of your body this year!’….. Then she gave me a hug and kicked my ass back out into the rain.
It was great to have company again and Victoria led the way up the Thames Path, luckily I was paying attention as she almost missed the diversion in her eagerness to get me moving. Diversion safely negotiated we headed for Whitchurch in the torrential rain, VLT grabbed me some jammy sandwiches at the aid station and then we were off to Reading. There was no sign of anyone in front or behind us, so we plodded on relentlessly to the aid station that you just never seem to reach. Aside from a few workman at the railway bridge just after the infamous ‘Welcome to Reading’ sign and a group of lads in Reading we didn’t see a soul…
VLT drove me on, in fact at times I had to tell her to slow down as I was worried that she would burn herself out before we made it back to Goring. Victoria completed the 100 mile GS herself last year so I never doubted she could cope with the distance, however we are at slightly different ends of the speed scale and I think she didn’t want to ‘slow me down’ so was pushing as hard as she could. She didn’t have to worry though as my legs were in bits and I was struggling to keep up with her.
Finally we reached Reading where the team made us both a cup of tea. It was like nectar and went down well with a Vegan cookie. We had arrived in 15:49 minutes so I knew that we could walk the 13 miles (including diversion) back to Goring and I would still finish the race and achieve a sub 24. Although I reminded myself of this out loud which may have been a little insensitive to my pacer and the aid station volunteers!!
Then it was back out in the rain for the final stretch. There seemed to be fewer head torches coming towards us this time and they were far more spaced out. The race was obviously starting to take it’s toll on everyone. We caught and passed a couple of runners which unbeknownst to me moved me up into the top 10. To be honest I couldn’t of cared less at the time, I just wanted the race to be over. My legs had given me everything and more, and now they deserved a rest.
Victoria led the way and I just followed her feet… I don’t know how we did it, but we ran more than we walked. The Thames path was shocking, we were both sliding all over the place, and with a majority of the field still to traverse the path I felt for the runners who would tackle this leg into Sunday morning. When we arrived at Whitchurch for the second time, Francis was there pacing his runner. I was a little more with it, so I managed to give him a hug and have a few words. I was glad to see him, as he is an absolute gentleman and I had felt bad not being able to chat earlier.
The final push now, and the last 5 miles… we were almost done. More and more runners were passing us in the opposite direction now, some with pacers and some without. I said well done to as many as I could, but I think sometimes it just came out as mumbled garbage. I was now running entirely on empty.. I needed Goring to arrive.
As we followed the diversion for one last time, I looked at my watch and said to Victoria.. we have 20 minutes to get to the hall for a sub 19hr 100 miler. She laughed as I think she thought we were further away than we were. We reached the hall in just over 11 minutes and I crossed the line in an unbelievable 18:51:06… finishing in 9th place overall (although I didn’t know that at the time). Hugs were exchanged, congratulations were given and then Stuart March did his thing…. Chris Mills told me I finished in the top ten and then a lovely volunteer grabbed both me and VLT (who had been an absolutely superb pacer) a cup of tea.
The race was done, I had completed the Triple crown, I had earned the 100 mile buckle that was missing from my collection and now I am happy to say my season is over!! As Nici pointed out at the end of leg 3, I asked a huge amount of my body this year and for the most part it delivered…. sometimes in a pretty spectacular way.
I had started the year with 3 goals…
1.) run a marathon PB, 2.) win a centurion 100 miler, 3.) run a great Spartathlon
I can happily sit here now and write that I somehow managed to achieve all three of these pretty lofty targets, as well as having a few other decent results along the way. I now intend to give my body a long rest and eat lots of cake before my thoughts turn to what I might do in 2020……
Huge thanks must go to Victoria (VLT) for supporting and pacing me at A100, as without her help I would not have finished. Thanks must also go to Oliver and Kirsty Jones, Matt Blackburn, Chris Caimano, and Mark Westbrook for crewing, supporting and pacing me during my other two centurion races, as once again I would not have achieved what I have without their help. I also mustn’t forget my number one fan Papa H… who once again has supported me fantastically throughout the whole year.
All that is left for me to do is to thank all those other people who have supported me and followed me on my journey this year. I have received so many lovely messages, and I am truly humbled by the support and kindness that the ultra-running community possesses!!! See you all on the trails in 2020.. (or at Wendover Woods 50, as I’ll be there supporting!!!)