You’ve just finished sitting shivering in a rowing shed drinking tea at 2am, and shortly after wards find yourself wandering around a stranger’s back garden looking for some red and white barrier tape…if there is a sign your race hasn’t gone to plan this would be a big one.
Rewind almost 20hours and I was standing in Richmond with around 300 other runners ready to embark on the Thames path 100 ultramarathon. A few weeks before it looked like the temperature would hit the late teens, by race day it looked like it would hit 22…then 23. I already had reservations of hitting my time goals but I thought 22-23c heat would be manageable. In reality it hit more like 28-30c. More than any Scotsman should ever be allowed to endure. I’m surprised there isn’t a charity based relief organisation set up for just those occasions.
My plan from the start was to run for an hour, walk for 5 mins (to account for the lack of hills), and run another hour and so on. Spending 5 mins in and around each aid station. However it wasn’t long before that was reduced to short walk every 30 mins…. Then every 10! The heat was crippling me. All winter I had battled through sub zero temperatures, snow and rain. I had only recently started training in single layers! Even our recent honeymoon in Borneo the conditions were more cooler than this. So to say I was under prepared for the conditions was an understatement.
I muddled my way through the first 51 miles to Henley. Mainly taking a 1 minute break every 10, with a slightly longer break every 30 mins to eat some food. Although when I got to each aid station I couldn’t help but sit in the shade trying to cool off and ended up just watching 10…15…20 mins ticking away at a time. A far cry from my strategy, but it was the only way to cool off.
My day was mainly being fueled by Spring Energy gels and Active Root for the technical stuff. Then fruit, water and a bit of pasta at aid stations. The heat made any food not packed with water hard to eat, so I probably consumed an entire watermelon to myself over the day. Thankfully no gut issue to add to my woes!
When it eventually started to cool off, things were a lot more pleasant and I was glad to be out the sun. Passing through the centre of Reading at pub closing time was an experience in itself. But thankfully the groups I passed were encouraging, if a little surprised to see runners out at that time. However in the early hours as both my pace and the temperature dropped, things got really cold. Even when I stopped to layer up, my core temp would drop significantly and undo any benefit I got from them. After getting lost trying to reach Wallingford checkpoint (77.5miles), I had thrown in the towel. I just sat there in a rowing shed they had turned into an aid station, shivering, tired and just completely done in. Unfortunately centurion aid stations are like hosts at a dinner party. They are very welcoming at first, put on a great spread…but they don’t really want you hanging around all night and make no bones about getting you out the door.
Having failed at my attempt to get withdrawn from the race, I left the checkpoint, and immediately took a wrong turn into a strangers garden. In my defense, it could easily have been a national trust property judging by the size of it. However after a few minutes of crunching around on their gravel paths, setting off security lights, and resisting the urge to pull up a chair on their patio… I successfully navigated my way back onto the trail. To pass the time I started performing the basic maths (which passes a lot of time at that stage) to work out what time I could finish at. I worked out that a sub 24h finish would still be possible if I got a wiggle on. So wiggle on I did. I was on a mission, so much so that some random pop song ear wormed its way into my head “I am a woman, on a mission, woahwoahwoahohoh”. That’s the only line I know, and I have no idea who even sings it, but the sheer ridiculousness of the situation made me chuckle, so it kept my spirits up. Also I was starting to overtake people again so that was an added bonus. I had worked out the exact time I needed to get into the Clifton Hampden (85mile) aid station to still be on target for sub 24 (and crucially finish before it got too hot again). Although that aid station just wouldn’t come and it was a whole mile further on than I had been expecting. I did a quick turnaround at the aid station, but my legs had given up again. I was still moving ok but slowly. I just focused on getting through the next 4 miles to the checkpoint, although it wasn’t 4 miles. It was 6. Total error on my part but a crippling blow to my already dwindling enthusiasm. I had my friend Holly with me by this point who tried her best to keep me moving and keep my spirits up. I’m sure she wasn’t offended that the only thing that seemed to cheer me up was when a dog came to say hello. I had short lived dreams of it following me to the finish then me taking it home and calling it “Thames” … when it went running back to it’s owner.
We eventually reach Abingdon, at 95 miles, which saw me sitting, once again, in the shade trying to avoid the sun. With 9 miles to go I was ready to throw in the towel once more. But alas, the aid station crew were not giving up on me. I think the clincher was that I would have came 91 miles, but only registered as 77 from the last timing point. I thought I would continue on to tag the extra distance, and maybe come away with an epic tale of failing. So I got myself up and carried on with Damion this time. But over this next 4 miles things got grim…very very grim. I don’t think it has ever taken me so long to cover 4 miles. I looked and felt like I had gone 12 rounds with Mike Tyson. I was staggering along the trail getting slower and slower and the temperature began to soar once again, this time hotter than the previous day. It took all the energy I could muster just to keep crawling forwards.
I got to Lower Radley aid station with 4.8 miles to go, and zero intention of taking a step further. This was cruelty, there is no way anyone would allow someone in this state to carry on. I crumpled myself into a chair and the aid station staff did their best to rally me round. I didn’t have the energy to say I was going to DNF or take off my number (or maybe deep down I knew I didn’t want to be the one to say it). I sat there despondent as the crew frantically tried to cool me down and feed me fruit and water. Then one of them seemed to decide it was her personal mission to get me back out there. I had written the names “Tom” and “Jim” on my shoes for Jen’s Grandpa and my Dad and Grandad (conveniently rolled into one Jim) to give me strength when I was at my lowest. Because let’s be honest when you are in the depths of hell… you aren’t looking to the sky, you are looking at your feet, albeit waiting for the ground to open up and swallow you in. Probably cooler down there too. However once she (unfortunately I never caught her name) spotted these name, she went to town on it. Pushing all my buttons. I wanted to tell her where to go but nothing would come out, I just had to sit there and take it. Damion had called Holly saying I was total out of it and she would have to come and get me….however by the time Holly drove 5 miles down the road to pick us up, I was off again. The pep talk in the aid station must have reached Braveheart levels. I vaguely remember thinking that if I was doing this, I was going to get it over with as quick as possible, I couldn’t face another death march. I must have found some untapped reserves, but when I left there I was flying (respectively speaking for the end of a 100 mile race of course). Probably some of the best running I did all day! Before I knew where I was the finish line in sight and a was “sprinting” for the line to earn my second belt buckle in 26 hours and 11 minutes!
Going into the race I had ambitions of a sub 20h finish, but I never imagined the conditions could be quite so tough. I did wonder how I would cope on such a flat course, but I can’t say that it made it any easier or harder. Just a different type of challenge The course itself though was amazing, incredibly beautiful and a thoroughly recommended race… on a slightly cooler day perhaps. Plus any race organised by Centurion and their amazing volunteers is just an incredible experience.
Next stop, West Highland Way… It has never been 30c in Glencoe in June, has it?
Final kudos has to go to Tom Stevens. Everything was stacked against him coming into the race as he looked to complete a 100 miler on his 2nd attempt. Despite the testing conditions he absolutely smashed it out the park! What a legend!
For the strava geeks… https://www.strava.com/activities/1553945435