So 3 years ago I ran my first ultra: 100kms (62 miles) up the Thames path from Putney to Henley. And I said I would never do that again. And I was right I guess. Because that race qualified me to try a 100 mile Centurion race, but only if I ran it within 3 years. And the clock was ticking. So last summer, during a lovely trip to the Hebrides, and amid my 2016 running streak, the endorphins got the better of me and I logged on when the Centurion entry page opened and secured a place, one of "300" to try to run from London to Oxford, non-stop, on 29 April 2017.
Training didn't begin in earnest til the new year, after I had the Abingdon marathon done in October, and while planning for the Barcelona marato in March (for both see blogs above). I focussed on a back2back strategy of running on tired legs. So, 20 miles followed by 10,15, or 18 the next day, And slow.
I did some mega runs, also slow: so a 25 miler and a 32. These were killer and my pace faded so badly during them, even from my slow starting pace, that I was very worried I would just fall apart on The Day. I also did a lot of night running - not silly o'clock, but a lot of runs after a long day in London, commuting back, seeing it pouring rain at 10pm and still heading out the door. These were all 'keep running when you don't want to' runs - as I had read that these ultras are 10% physical, 80% mental, and the last 10% heart. There also wasn't an escalator or stairs I didn't walk - for months on end, I never saw the inside of a lift. My default every day was to Do the Hard Thing. Mental toughening. I did some big mileage, like 80, 90 and 100 mile weeks - but always very slow and high cadence, and with regular fuelling breaks, training myself to eat every 25 mins. These mega long running weeks were very hard - shattering even - but immensely satisfying ... until I realised that come the Centurion I had to run that distance IN A DAY. Hmmmmm. But most of my weekly mileage was just above the marathon training level (50-60 miles weeks) so not overly high. (Being over half a Century in age myself). Running the Barcelona marato 'on tired legs' was also an experience in measured pacing and confidence-building.
Finally with a month to go I had had enough of running and was worried I was over tired and mentally spent and just sick of it. So: BOYS TRIP to Whistler... no running, very hard-core quad-busting skiing, interspersed with hot tubs, cold pools, massage and bbqs...
and lots of carbs.
a BLESSED BREAK from running, and work - including a job change!
Then back to my little island for some tune up 'recces' with my pacers (allowed on race day after 51 miles, as night falls, mainly to keep you on track and not into the river). The Thames Path is not as easy as 'follow the river' - there are big hills and major diversions.
Some involving crossing 50 mph roads in the middle of the night on race day:
Some just meaning getting lost in small towns:
Son and Daughter each got difficult sections to recce, as did Wife and friends, Nick, Billy and David.
|"Dad baton" being handed from Son to Daughter along Pangbourne-Streatley-Wallingford stretch|
Then time to taper, and we are good to go! I got to London the night before after a train blockage due to a suicide, a mini cab with rugby fans, a tube ride and then a rickshaw ... not the most restful route but dealable. Especially since I would be dealing with a lot worse annoyances - like basic threshold pain - during the race. Good practice.
Race morning dawned at Richmond Old Town Hall on the banks of the River Thames in London. Chatted a bit, got through mandatory kit check (waterproofs, blanket, two lights, hat, gloves, collapsible mug, extra kit, map, 1000 ml water etc) and was handed my running number:
10am struck, and we were off! 300 souls ... and who knew then that a third would not make it?!
I wanted to go out at 12 min miles for the first 50, nice and slow, and then hang on for dear life for the second 50 miles ... the half of it when all the stats for previous efforts at this race said everybody's pace faded by 30% ...ie for me to 16 mins ... thus averaging overall maybe 14 min miling and a chance at a 24 hour buckle (haha - I wanted it, but I was viewing that as icing, and the cake being to finish at all). From the start I tried and tried to keep it to 12 min miling, but failed miserably going out at 10.30/11 despite trying so hard to slow down...it took me 5 miles to get to the right pace, and during the first half I kept going too quick at times with some 9.30 and 10 min miles ('too quick too quick', indeed Ted would message me from NYC!). My plan was a 25 min run, 5 min walk plan and my Garmin vibrated whenever I had to change pace, and no matter how good or bad I felt I stuck with it as long as I could.
My walks were forced marches, fairly quick, at 13 min mile pace, and I used them to fuel, eating protein for the first few hours - bison!! - then into the carbs. I focussed on whole foods and nuts and watermelon and the like, at the well stocked aid stations every 10 miles, or from my backpack. My fluid was mainly Tailwind - which is awesome, but I did sneak in the odd early flat Pepsi and some chocolate. S-caps once an hour (salt), religiously - minimal ibuprofen, yummy Gu's of salted caramel, and more chocolate.
The weather was sunny but temperate, however I never stopped sweating and even with frequent aid rehydration and carrying 1000 ml with me, I was out of water about 2-3 miles before every aid station, and could never seem to catch up. I'd drink 4 cups of water at every checkpoint and refill my bottle but I knew I was dehydrating (not eventually pee'ing, and that a bad red colour, until 10pm ... but confusing signals, since I'd had beetroot juice the days before and morning of the race too!) but I kept downing all the drinks I could stomach, and trying to keep the fluid in.
20 miles came and went and so did the path. "Lost in Staines" would you believe it?! I'd missed a bridge turn and ran 3/4s of a mile the wrong way before being redirected back to my mistake by a kindly woman and her kids. Negative self-talk followed and the next 15 miles was very annoying. A fellow runner tried to make me be stoic and said - look you've only added 1% to your day! - and I could see his point...but it still irked. I tried to stop the negative chat, and loaded up on sweets and bananas at aid stations, forcing myself to smile and cheer myself up.
Here began though, a real pain cave. From about 30 to 51 miles, I hated each and every step. It was like a 'bad patch' in a marathon but it just never ended. and I was running through some of the most beautiful scenery in the world! Very strange. But I kept the tunes going - rather too much of Tom Petty 'I wont back down' and Dave Matthews at Radio City 'Bartender' - and repeated - more than 100x:
NEVER GIVE IN
NEVER NEVER NEVER
NEVER GIVE IN
Gradually I approached Henley - where I was allowed to take on one pacer at a time, and see my family. This really really really helped.
|Team Marsden descend in pit stop Henley|
I sat down for the first time, and they got my shoes off, cleaned me up, helped me into a warm top and head torch and hat for the night half and got into me, at my command:
1 cup coffee (so so good)
1/2 a jar gherkin juice (craving)
Tailwind and UCANN
Very strong dark ginger beer (lashings of)
They also cheered me immensely by helping me with my maths - lost miles and miles ago - and assuring me I was over an hour and a half ahead of the time I had wanted to leave that station. mmmmmmm good. a time-Cushion!!
and so it was off now into the setting sun, 845pm ish, with Nick, who had to deal with minor eruptions (air only) from the witches' brew I had necked down, and a lot of boring running in fields and small towns. We didn't see anyone ... and this would have worried me if alone, and thinking 'lost again!' but having a pacer assured me we were just in some race backwater between other strugglers. Nick also mandated my first pee break at Sonning, which was worrying because it was 12 hours since the Start (!) but I got more fluid into me and trucked on. That got me to Reading and Wife as pacer 2. She had me in and out of the aid station, race number checked off all while passing a beautiful inviting sofa, within a minute, and out the door and down some cruel steps.
Into the lights of Reading and the usual louts and drunks shouting abuse ... we plodded on, at a decent pace, and she got to tell me I had now run further than the 100km race I'd done in 2014, and also at 66.6 she could say I was more than 2/3s in the bag. I did have to grab a bench and tape a hot spot here - and to that I blame changing shoes, but truly I could not take another step in the ones I'd run the first 51 miles in. Hokas be lovely, but I needed a change. Then followed an endless long curve of at least 200 or 300 miles ... but was really only 2 to Pangbourne.
I was passed on to Son after midnight, who got me through the torture of the Whitchurch hills. Look at this, is this a flat towpath run to you?
|Son got me up and down the two cruel spikes!!|
Son was great though, reciting INVICTUS to me, and declaring my run and charity efforts 'admirable, Dad', which made me chuckle.
Daughter stepped in now in the wee hours to get me through the Goring Gap, a very tricky run along a busy road, off and on the towpath, and through woods...I had popped some German Army caffeine chocolate though and was ready to move. Daughter and I formed a light-tunnel shuttle with our head torches and we motored during this part...really making good time, and humming along. One quick loo stop let me know the kidneys were not getting what they wanted - I had to do more to stop peeing rose! I drank tons and moved on.
She passed me on to David at Wallingford around 3am, he of the searchlight headtorch and fabulous route knowledge ...and along this endless leg I again I realised I needed to up the hydration. As the night cooled and I got more fluid in I was doing better. But this had come at a cost, namely endless nausea feeling and groaning about - well - anything really, but mainly ruts in the path or minor turns. Nothing specific hurt, just everything. Another friend, Howard, tagged along around Dorchester which was lovely as I thought I had missed him, still an hour ahead of schedule at 4am.
By now I was monosyllabic if that. A typical exchange:
Pacer: 'kissing gate coming up on your left'
Runner: (ugh) 'gate'
Pacer: 'you're doing so well, keep it up'
Runner: (burp) 'up'
Pacer: drink some fluid, come on, get it down
Sometimes I would alert them that I was going to change from running to walking pace, by declaring too loud "WALKING". They would then continue walking next to me just as they had been when I was 'running'. Oh joy.
|The Crew await Head Torches on the Horizon|
|and here we come|
Whether it was the kidneys or my back ...I don't know, but now very very bad backpain came in - both sides of my lower back were locked, and at the next checkpoint I lay down on my stomach and begged for a volterol massage. Wife obliged and things seemed better for a mile but then my final scheduled pacer, Billy, had to witness rather more walking and rather not very much running, from Clifton Hampden to Abingdon. He kept my spirits up with jokes and repeated references to the sunrise I was missing behind me around 5am. It was gorgeous having got through the whole Night though and the little towns and fields of my 'shire were sweet and bucolic. Billy also got 1.5L into me during that 6 mile leg, and while the back pain didn't subside, I did stop worrying about having to stop due to kidney failure!
At 91 miles ... my crew told me my time-cushion and assured me that I had 3 hours (!!!) to do the last 9 miles, if I wanted the coveted and as yet unheard-of-for-me, 24 hour buckle. This was fake news to me and I queried the team, relentlessly over more coffee and another blessed one-minute sit down, somehow thinking that my sleep-deprived and exhausted brain must be able to figure this out better than my crew's driver, friend Helen, a renowned economist, and pacer Billy, with a Maths degree from Magdalen College, Oxford no less. Deciding to just get moving, I had originally planned to run the back 9 by myself, turning on my music I'd turned off at Henley and covering familiar ground like a returning hero. Not to be. I begged for a pacer to 'get me home' and Daughter obliged, adding 9 miles to her existing 7, and after being up all night. It was not running as anyone knows it though. Indeed, I didn't run a step. I walked and walked and complained and muttered over and over 'Relentless Forward Progress' but gradually, look, I started leaning over to the right, my back contorted into a grimace.
|perhaps not obvious to the naked eye but to me it felt like I was becoming a letter C|
Nothing I could do would straighten me out. Daughter told me to breathe into my core, and roll my shoulders, and just enjoy a lovely morning riverside walk with her etc etc but over and over I bent! But we were, agonisingly, getting closer and sure enough, at Iffley Lock, rowers Tim and Kerry, who I have rowed this stretch with thousands of times, popped up on their bikes to say Hello! That was touching since it was a few years ago when I was rowing that I had seen Centurion participants zombie walking past our boat, and wondering what the hell was going on...
and here, I was, doing it!! A stranger turned to me as I hobbled by and asked if I was finishing the Centurion. With 400 yards to go, it seemed safe to say Yes, and he cried 'Well done, old man!' and here it was, the famous left turn into Queens College Cricket Ground!
and it was over, albeit bending like the Tower of Pisa!
Some stats that are not too shabby!
and some fun stuff too:
and who is hungry now?
|Wife and Daughter up all night and pacing, still smiling|
Fam whisked me home by 10am, I was put to bed til noon, and then began the Epsom soak saga and had a delightful visit with pacers and families and friends over chili and lasagne and puddings! I am so grateful to my crew, friends and family and to all the charity sponsors who helped me raise over £6000 for SANE - thank you!!!
|Liza and Fanis bring me my own big bag o salts!|
and I must say, it truly was, overall, the most extraordinary and most painful thing I have ever done. I'm 'two weeks since' now, and the blisters lanced and drained after the race are down, my inflamm and edema in the feet is gone, I've had a physio tune up and massage, but I still have no urge to run, and indeed one knee is saying 'not yet' ... but it is the quiet Sense of Achievement that leaves me saying 'no more' of this distance, thank you very much. Back to marathons and shorter. Like I said 3 years ago!!
A deeper one is 'to help those affected by mental illness who I can't help directly'.
Another reason though... and which work colleagues may recognise was simply: 'because I said I would'. And yes, I even have that on a tshirt.
By Endurance We Conquer.