2020 vision: My next big challenge

I’m sure the feeling of fear, as long as you can take advantage of it and not be rendered useless by it, can make you extend yourself beyond what you would regard as your capacity. If you’re afraid, the blood seems to flow freely through the veins, and you really do feel a sense of stimulation. – Edmund Hillary

It’s Sunday 13 October 2019. I’m sitting in Goring village hall, tucking into a sausage in a bun and talking with my Mum, my brother Greg and my pacer Liam. I’ve just completed the 4th and final race of the Centurion Running 100 mile Grand Slam, the Autumn 100, and endured some pretty testing conditions underfoot and hours of rain. My legs have been hating me since a few hours into the race. I’m knackered but I’m smiling as I am one of 32 runners who have managed to get it done and I now have the coveted Grand Slam buckle.

I find myself saying that I think it’s time to take a break from running such long distances and that “I think I’m done with 100 milers now.” My family wonder if I’ve come to my senses at last. Liam just smiles.

Time passes. After eating everything in sight for a good few days and taking another 2 week break from running post race – which served me well as a recovery tool between the Grand Slam races – I start to think about my next running challenge.

I decide to try running faster and sign up for the Imperial Series of 10 mile races in February and March 2020. I figure it’ll be good to get my legs turning over more quickly and to have a crack at a new 10 mile PB after focusing on long, slow endurance running for most of my training over the last 2 years.

I return to running, struggling for consistency and it gradually dawns on me that my Grand Slam journey has taken much more of a toll on me mentally than I thought it would. I decide to ease myself back into training, not to stress over missing a few runs here and there in the initial weeks. Oh, and a couple of sessions with the excellent osteopath Oliver Curties have (thankfully) confirmed that I don’t have achilles tendonitis and can keep running.

There was still something missing. If you’ve ever worked towards a running goal then once the race is done the post-race blues will probably be familiar to you. In the past I’ve got over these by signing up for another race before completing the race before so I have something to look forward to and focus upon immediately after a short post-race recovery period. Having been solely focused on the Grand Slam since Summer 2018 I hadn’t booked anything else yet. So, what to do next?

I volunteered at the inaugural Copthorne 50k, 50 mile and 100 mile races by Canary Trail Events in late November and spent the morning in the company of my friend Mark Thornberry, fellow Grand Slammer, and Grand Union Canal Run (GUCR145) finisher before helping out at the aid station on this brutal course. One for the future? Certainly. I’m not sure about the 100 miler – 10 loops of the course with over 20,000 feet of climbing along the way – but the 50 miler appeals in the same way as the Wendover Woods 50 miler that I did in 2018.

With the one and only Mark Thornberry at the top of Box Hill in Surrey on a frosty Saturday morning in November. Mark was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer in 2017 and given less than a year to live but he’s still here and paying it forward with his simply incredible fundraising efforts for Kings College Hospital in London. If you can spare a few pounds please donate here to make a difference to others by funding research which will help those suffering with this devastating disease.

The stunning scene that greeted us when we arrived at the top of Box Hill

What race would get me excited and get me training with a glint in my eye again? I seriously considered Mark Cockbain’s 25 hour track 100 miler in October 2020 – after all, even I with my less than stellar navigational skills couldn’t get lost on a track! I looked at the 75 mile Pen Llyn Ultra, a race that looks tough and a potentially wonderful adventure on Welsh trails, as well as thinking about entering my first multi day ultra at the Ring O’Fire around Anglesey and taking on the Jurassic Coast 100. Decisions, decisions!

Then, after meeting up with Rich Cranswick for a coffee and discussing his new races I decided I’d take on the Summer Solent Backyard Ultra in July 2020, a race where participants complete a 4.17 mile trail loop, starting on the hour every hour until there’s only one runner remaining!

That was it. I was set and happy with my choice of race. This would be an opportunity for a 100 mile PB if I managed to stay in the race for at least 24 hours and a good mental test. The track 100 miler would have also been a big, big mental test but the SSBU was local to me and provided the opportunity to run further than 100 miles if I could manage it. Perfect.

Then Goggins intervened….

I was listening to yet another David Goggins interview on my way to work and my mind drifted to the Kennet Avon Canal Race (KACR145). I don’t know why, but as soon as I parked up at work I quickly Googled the race and started to smile. The nervous energy started to build as I reviewed the race information on the website and started to look at race reports!

“As humans, we’re reading books everyday to try to figure out how to be someone else. What we don’t do is go inside, turn ourselves inside out, and read our own story. You have to look inside to find out what you really want.” – David Goggins

Err, hang on a minute … Oh heck! This race scared me. It also excited me. Why the heck couldn’t I run from London to Bristol? 145 miles with a 45 hour cut off. What if I could? I felt an excitement that I hadn’t felt since signing up for the Grand Slam. Could I? Should I?

View this post on Instagram

Always be asking yourself “what’s next?” While it is very important to be proud of what you do and have accomplished in life, it is more important to keep your mind challenged with a fresh new task at hand. Your mind is always trying to find the easiest way out so once you accomplish a major task, your mind tells you “it’s time to celebrate!” While celebrating is good to do, don’t sit in that celebration for too long! When I asked the young man what was next, he had no answer. Make sure you have an answer for questions about your life. The second you don’t have one, that is time wasted. You don’t find those answers by not asking yourself the appropriate questions. Where do I see myself next year? What do I want to accomplish? What are my weaknesses? Where do I want to be two years from now, etc? It is important to spend time with yourself figuring out what the fuck you want to do and who you want to be. A lot of us have trophies on the shelves, certificates and plaques hanging on the wall or sitting on our desks BUT, make sure to look at the dates you earned these awards and the recognition. If they are more than one or two years old, it means you haven’t done shit since then. Don’t sit back on past accomplishments! A lot of people believe that once greatness is earned it is permanent. That’s bullshit! Once you lay your head on that pillow, you are back to scratch again! Earn greatness everyday! Make sure your list of goals and things you want to get done in your life is one long-ass list that you are continually adding to while crossing things off. An unfocused mind becomes a lazy and undisciplined mind! Once again, I am not saying not to celebrate your accomplishments but I am saying the longer you keep your head up your ass, the less oxygen you have to breathe!

A post shared by David Goggins (@davidgoggins) on

I thought about it all day at work. Then when I got home I thought about it some more. I couldn’t stop thinking about this race. Having never run further than 103 miles before, the additional miles were daunting. Would I have it in me to finish a race of this distance, almost 50% further than I’d ever run before?

I signed up!

There’s only one way to find out. I have 7 months to get race ready. I’ll either get it done or I’ll gain experience to help me on future races. Win or learn. And I guess I ought to take my own advice as well:

I’m fully expecting to face challenges along the way and am currently working on a training plan to prepare me and enable me to overcome them.

After using TrainAsOne for the last 2 years I’m planning to use the experience gained and insights from Jason Koop’s excellent book Training Essentials for Ultrarunning to put my own training plan together. I did this for my first 100 miler in 2015 and it worked well so I’m keen to have another go now that I know my body and understand my physical and mental capabilities even better.

Onwards.

Autumn 100 – Grinding out the Grand Slam

“You should assume that there are many things ahead you will have to suffer” – Seneca

Seneca was a wise man indeed.

The Thames Path was a little slippery in places… and The Ridgeway! [Photo credit: Zoe Norman]

Days of rain before the race making the trails wet, muddy and slippery underfoot ✔️

Heavy rain overnight making them even sloppier ✔️

Being at the back of the pack and benefitting from the trails churned up by the faster runners on this out and back race ✔️

It’s so easy to go on a downward emotional spiral when faced with adverse conditions during long distance trail races like the Autumn 100. If left unchecked, this can lead to self sabotage and end your race early.

Endurance athlete and coach Luke Tyburski was kind enough to send me a personal message ahead of the first race of my Grand Slam journey in which he reminded me of the importance of focusing upon what we can control during these races. I reminded myself of this often over the weekend.

The conditions are the same for everyone. Running 100 miles isn’t meant to be easy. Did I really think that completing the Centurion Running 100 mile Grand Slam would be straightforward? It was time to grind, as my new hero David Goggins and Jocko Willink would say.

Race registration

Fellow #MIBUltraTeam runner (if you know, you know) Simon Welch was also running this race after a frustrating year (injury scuppered his plans to run Country to Capital and then the South Downs Way 100) which had turned around with a storming run at the Ridgeway 86 in August and kindly offered to drive me to the start in Goring. We picked up Nikki Yeo, fresh from her great run at the South Downs Way 100, on the way and collectively “admired” the weather as we headed closer to the start. There may have been a few rhetorical questions and comments shared like “Remind me why we do this again?” and “I hope it’s not pouring with rain all race” along the way. Focus on what you can control!!

We arrived in plenty of time to register and catch up with friends running or volunteering at the race. It was great to see fellow wannabe Grand Slammers including Sharon Dickson at the start. We hugged as we prepared to embark upon the final stage of our respective 400 mile journeys. A special bond had developed between us over the year and I remain in awe of Sharon’s grit and mental fortitude (more on that later).

After a few short exchanges with Paul Pickford, Jon Fielden, Matt Bevan, Lou Fraser, Tracey Watson, Brendan Turner, Julian Desai and many more (sorry I can’t remember you all, my brain was a little fried at the time) and kit check I received my race number. What a lovely touch – this year the Centurion Running team had given all the runners still in for the Grand Slam a special black race number so we could be easily identified and James Elson, the Race Director, asked the other runners to give us a special shout out and encouragement along the way. Simply marvellous stuff. Thanks for continuing to tweak the races and make them even better James.

Special race number for all of the runners still in for the 100 mile Grand Slam

Race briefing in Goring village hall [Photo credit: Lou Fraser]

Heading over to the Morrell Rooms in Streatley for the start with Simon [Photo credit: Nikki Yeo]

Looking far, far too excited about running 100 miles – with Simon at the start line [Photo credit: Simon Welch]

Leg 1: Goring to Little Wittenham and back (Thames Path)

The plan: run 9 minutes, walk 1 minute, repeat. This had worked really well for me at the Thames Path 100 and left me with good energy levels in the later miles of the race. I had a tough plan for the 4 legs to take 5, 6, 7 and 8 hours respectively, which would give me a 26 hour finish (assuming quick turnarounds after each leg).

A couple of miles in [Photo credit: Chris Larmour]

The reality: nothing like this plan! After we bunched up getting through the first few parts of the route I was worried about losing time so immediately adjusted this to a 19/1 run/walk and later to a 14/1 run/walk. I also forgot to eat early enough and started playing catch up throughout this leg.

At least I was smiling for the camera – Stuart March once again works his magic to make me look like a runner [Photo: Stuart March]

The effect: lacking a clear structure I started to struggle a bit with my pacing and with inconsistent fuelling my energy levels were lower than expected. I arrived back at race HQ after 5h20m, behind plan.

Highlight: seeing the other runners on their way back, exchanging FYBs with fellow Bad Boy Running podcast/cult members, getting high fives from friends also doing the race and “Go on Grand Slam Graham!” shouts of encouragement. Oh, and running through a field with cows and calves in it and not being chased!

Kit change: tops changed, two t-shirts with the same arm sleeves as leg 1. New buff.

Leg 2: Goring to Swyncombe and back (Ridgeway)

This is the one with the seemingly never ending, up and down single track trail which leads to the up, up and rooty Grims Ditch.

The plan: walk the ups, run the downs, jog the flats.

Th reality: The first few miles are on runnable footpaths and roads and it started well. I was in good spirits. Then the doubts started to creep in. “My legs don’t want to play”, I told myself. Yes, they were tired – having already run 3 x 100 mile races seemed to have taken its toll, despite feeling strong and running well during my last couple of weeks of training – but I wasn’t willing them to move more quickly. The slippery trail by the water tested my resolve and I was found wanting (okay, mostly walking those bits). I had begun to question my ability after missing my initial 5 hour target, even though my only real goal for the race was to finish within the cut offs and get that fourth and final buckle to complete the set and earn the Grand Slam buckle.

I carried a reminder of the aid stations and cut offs with me and only referred to it 2 or 3 times – mainly on leg 4!

As I was passed by Matt, Jon and then Simon as they headed back towards HQ on their return leg, and I trudged onwards towards and through Grims Ditchtowards the turnaround point at Swyncombe, we exchanged greetings and I heard myself saying “I’m not good – my legs don’t want to play and my head’s all over the place but I’m feting it done.” I was trying to reset and reminded myself of having what Goggins calls a savage mindset but I was in a low. I needed to avoid a repeat of my 3rd loop experience at Wendover Woods 50 last November, and fast.

As I approached the turnaround point I decided to flick the switch. Alma Boates was there and gave me encouragement as I was still an hour ahead of the cut off. Once I’d removed my gaiters to get rid of a stone in my shoe (something I’d have to do annoyingly often as the muddy terrain took its toll) and refuelled – chunks of cheese FTW 😀 – I headed off and immediately started running. Okay, it was downhill but it was a start!

My mental state was improved from an hour earlier, helped by the messages that followed my only Facebook post during any of the Grand Slam races. Never underestimate the power of an encouraging word or two.

I put my phone away. I refocused. I wasn’t going down without a fight. I was going to do this. “The way up was bound to take longer so you’ve lost some time. You can make it up on the return leg. Come on GC! This is the Grad Slam. Let’s go!” If you heard me shouting at myself – I can’t remember if I had this conversation in my head or out loud – then my apologies. Actually, I’m not sorry. Time to grind! Jacket on, headtorch on, game on!

“When you dream big, you must know that it will entail you falling off the horse many times along the journey. When your mind is telling you to quit and give up on your dream, it is important to remember all the repetition and sacrifice made along the way.” – Goggins

A few reminders to keep me going when things got tough – mainly Goggins phrases

The effect: I caught up with and overtook a few runners between Swyncombe and North Stoke before heading on to race HQ and reaching the 50 mile point after about 12h20m. A 7 hour leg.

Highlight: getting an encouraging man hug from Simon as I trudged up Grims Ditch and a hug from Sharon Dickson as she passed me as I headed towards the turnaround point.

Kit change: at this point I decided to change my socks (trying not to look at the state of my feet), change tops to a long sleeved base layer with t-shirt over the top, and swap my running cap for a warmer beanie. New buff. Waterproof jacket on.

Pete Hammond, my pacer for leg 3 and who had helped me through the last 30 miles of the North Downs Way 100 in August, was waiting to greet me and helped me to change, refuel and get out of HQ within 20 minutes. Consvoys that friends and family following my progress online might be a little concerned after my earlier Facebook post, I asked Pete to add a halfway update to reassure them.

Feeling better 50 miles in, even if I don’t look it! [Photo credit: Pete Hammond]

As we headed out of the door Pete told methat we were 1h20m ahead of the cut off. I still had a reasonable buffer a long as I could keep moving well, hiking with purpose or running as the terrain allowed.

Leg 3: Goring to Chain Hill and back (Ridgeway)

The plan: run as much of the road from HQ to the start of the long climb up the Ridgeway as possible, hike the rest with purpose, then run the way back.

The reality: boy, I forgot that it feels like it’s up on the way out and up on the way back! There was a long downhill to enjoy after the initial climb and Pete made sure we made the most of it. It was a good job too as once we passed the first aid station at East Ilsley the ground underfoot became slippery, muddy and boggy in parts. Even when the terrain was flat enough to be runnable there was no point in trying unless we wanted to land on our backsides. Staying upright and moving forward being my priority, so began a long, long headtorch lit climb up to Chain Hill, interrupted only by the sight of a rave at the top of a climb which turned out to be the flashing lights of an auto rescue van trying to tow a random Audi out of the mud.

At the turnaround point we were informed that we were still an hour inside the cut off. We had lost a fair bit of time but I was still relatively calm, knowing that we had a mostly downhill leg now. Except the long uphill bit that was! Thankfully, we managed to make up some time on the way back.

Highlight: a chuckle at the sight of random strangers stranded at the top of the Ridgeway and waiting to be towed out of the mud cheering the runners on in the darkness and heavy rain.

Kit change: new socks, new base layer and t-shirt, new buff. Waterproof jacket back on.

Pete handed over to my leg 4 pacer, Liam Gibson, and off we trotted, with Nici Griffin’s instruction to “Bring him home Liam!” sending us on our way after some valuable encouragement from the wonderful Zoe Norman, who I paced at this race 2 years ago and was due to pace leg 4 but was unable to due to illness. Thanks so much for coming along to support me Zoe.

Pete, me and Liam – Pete looking far too happy given that he had another 25 miles ahead of him as sweeper for leg 4! [Photo credit: Zoe Norman]

Leg 4: Goring to Reading (yes, past that bloody sign!) and back (Thames Path)

The plan: keep moving, run a bit and walk a bit to get it done. In under 28 hours. And within the leg 4 aid station cutoffs.

The reality: oh my goodness, as soon we hit the Thames Path (after the joy of a bonus 1/2 mile diversion due to an unsafe bridge) it was a bogfest. Then we hit the uphill section thrgh the above river, which seemed to go on forever. We we passed by Sarah Sawyer and I got another hug. We trudged through fields by the river as the sun rose and we finally turned off our headtorches. Oh the sweet relief of daylight after 12+ hours by torchlight! It was at this point that we saw Simon ruing towards us on his way back to HQ and a much deserved sub-24 hour finish.

I began to worry about the time we were taking to cover this leg and we agreed that we needed to run more. So began a run a bit, walk a bit strategy that would get us to the Reading aid station and turnaround point at mile 87.5 with just over 30 minutes to spare. A few minutes before we arrived we were passed by Paul Pickford and I received a man hug power boost. Thanks Paul.

Upon arriving at the Reading aid station – which I had thankfully remembered is 5 miles or so after the “Welcome to Reading” sign you pass once you emerge from the woods after the housing estate – I was greeted by loud cheers from Zoe, Corinne Rodgers and Garfield Jones. That was a fabulous gesture and gave me a real lift, thank you all.

View from the cheering volunteers as I powered* my way into the Reading aid station [Photo credit: Zoe Norman]

*Other descriptions may be available

With Liam and Corinne, Garfield just out of shot mixing my drink for me [Photo credit: Zoe Norman]

After a quick turnaround, we left Reading at 9:02am, 28 minutes inside the cut off. We had to reach and leave the next aid station at Whitchurch, 8 miles away, by 11:45am. Cue squeaky bum time….

I miscalculated. I thought we had 2 hours to do 8 miles. That’s an average pace of 15 minutes per mile. Slow isn’t it? Why the concern? Well, with 88 miles already in my legs and aware of some of the energy sapping, slippery fields we had to cover I started to panic. “Liam, we need to get going. Keep me running as much as possible. I’m really worried I might get timed out at Whitchurch (5 miles from the finish) and I can’t face that.” Running hurt but the prospect of being timed out hurt more, so we pushed on.

Then we saw Sharon walking towards us. She looked distraught and said she was going to be timed out. I tried to encourage her but had miscalculated (again). She was a mile away from the aid station and had 7 minutes to get there if she was to beat the cut off. Sad, Sharon didn’t make it. Her Grand Slam dream ended at Reading. To her credit, she handed in her race number and proceeded to make her way back to Goring, with Zoe for company, so that she would at least have completed all 4 races distances in full. I am in awe of the mental strength needed to do that. I know how much my first DNF hurt. You’ll be back and stronger for it Sharon.

Sharon walked on. We started running again, passing another wannabe Grand Slammer along the way (who later got timed out at Whitchurch, I was sorry to discover). I dig deeper than I ever have before on a race and kept running. And running. And running. Then a quick walking break. Then more running. As we made out way across a particularly boggy stretch of the Thames Path before the toll bridge I commented walker and her daughter that the wellies they were wearing would be a better option. Liam told me later he thought that I was contemplating stealing their wellies!

Once we crossed the toll bridge I knewthe Whitchurch aid station was nearby. Still running, we reached the turning point and the marshalls told us we had 1h45m to reach the finish. We had maintained our 30 minute buffer against the cutoff and had 5 miles to go. I was going to do this!

After another quick aid station stop to top up water bottles, grab some fruit and introduce Nikki Mills and the rest othr volunteers to the delights of chocolate chip cookies with peanut butter spread on the top (they looked a me quizzically but apparently all sampled and enjoyed this after I left!) we set off for the 61 steps down (Simon counted them) and the last short, sharp hill on the trail. We crossed paths with fellow wannabe Grand Slammer Ken Hughes here and ran and walked down the trail above the river back to the fields alongside the Thames. The really boggy ones. Cue lots of walking, feet submerged in in muddy puddles several inches deep, and bemused hikers.

Then back to the diversion, with a final trot along the path before we headed back up the road to the finish. I decided to walk it in, to savour every moment as I was about to become a Grand Slammer. I’d worked towards the for the last 2 years. My dream was becoming a reality…..

Heading towards the finish, moments after a special hug from Nici Griffin [Photo credit: Greg Carter]

It’s really happening – I’ve just seen my Mum waving me in and the smile on her and my brother Greg’s faces and join them with a big grin of my own [Photo credit: Greg Carter]

The smile says it all – sheer relief and immense pride [Photo credit: Greg Carter]

The final few moments as I approached the finish line [Photo credit: Greg Carter]

One final cry of “Come on!” with fists raised in the air, as I’ve celebrated all of my Grand Slam race finishes, and I headed across the finish line/timing mat. Pausing to stop my GPS watch before taking my prizes, of course!

It was a surreal moment as I was handed my Autumn 100 buckle and t-shirt, then my Grand Slam buckle and t-shirt. I did it! With 15 minutes to spare.

The final Grand Slam results. 32 finishers. Last placed male. I don’t care. I bloody well did it!!

Double bubble – 2 finisher buckles this time! [Photo credit: Lou Fraser]

You can’t get one without the other – 2 finisher’s t-shirts

1 year, 5 buckles, a heck of a journey

Aha! That’s why I couldn’t stop eating in the days after the race!

Highlight: Being cheered into the finish by my Mum and brother Greg, who both cheered me in to my first 50 mile finish 6 years ago. Getting my hands on that big buckle I’d worked so hard to get.

I’m a Grand Slammer 😀

This was a magic moment [Photo credit: Stuart March]

My Wimbledon/Olympics equivalent – the relief, pride, joy and contentment [Photo credit: Stuart March]

Celebrating with Mum and my brother Greg [Photo credit: Stuart March]

Anything really is possible. If I can complete the Grand Slam then there’s hope for anyone. I am not fast but I am determined and I had the support of my amazing pacers Tracey, Matt, Pete and Liam. Aim high. You never know what you might achieve. Win or learn.

North Downs Way 100 – Redemption Time

Redemption just means you just make a change in your life and you try to do right, versus what you were doing, which was wrong.

– Ice T

In August 2017 I made a right royal cock up in my first attempt at running the North Downs Way 100. Yes, my Dad had passed away after a short illness only a few weeks prior to the race and that had a big impact upon me. However, ultimately I failed to finish due to inconsistent and unfocused training. I was the architect of my own downfall and didn’t deserve to finish. Despite my disappointment at my first DNF I quickly committed to going back to redeem myself and get that buckle:

So I lined up at the start of the North Downs Way 100 in Farnham at 6am on Saturday 3 August 2019. This time I was properly prepared, having training consistently for the last 20 months and already completed 2 x 100 mile races in 2019 as my Grand Slam attempt continued. Having had the foresight to book her super crewing and “motivational” skills 2 years in advance I was going to be well looked after along the way by Karen Webber. Having enjoyed pacing me at TP100, Tracey Watson had signed up for more of my stimulating night time conversation and would be joining me from Otford to Bluebell Hill before handing over to another very experienced ultra runner and fellow Ultra Bandit, Pete Hammond. Oh, and I would have someone special joining me for the whole 103 miles.

Dad was with me along the way ♥️

Pre-race

I drove to Farnham on the Friday night, registered, said a quick hello to fellow Grand Slam wannabe Sharon Dickson and giant of the scene Paul Pickford, then drove home for an early(ish) night. Nathan Hill once again deserves hero status for getting up at 4am to give me a lift to the start, just as he did at SDW100. Having transferred my gear to Karen’s car and secured a pre-race hug I headed into the leisure centre for James Elson’s pre-race briefing. By the way, my GPS watch showed 103.9 miles at the finish James… 😉 So excited was I to get going that I completely forgot to grab my GPS tracker from Chris Mills, who spotted me and sorted it.On the way to the start I had a quick chat with Richard Shlovogt and Stephen Cousins, fresh from their respective 100 mile finishes at the 1066 ultramarathon in July, and Rob Cowlin walked with me sharing welcome encouraging words. Once at the start, waiting for the air horn telling is to get moving, I felt strangely calm. I was ready. This text message from the one and only Mark Thornberry on race morning was just the tonic:

Farnham to Box Hill

Having paced the first 2 races in the Centurion Running 100 mile Grand Slam well I was hoping for more of the same here and ran at what felt like an easy pace without worrying about looking at my watch to check. From the outset I adopted a similar strategy to the SDW100, walking most of the hills with purpose and only running a few of them to conserve energy. I knew what awaited us in the next section, so ran steadily with the aim of reaching Box Hill (24 miles) in around 5 hours. It was warm and humid and I was drinking lots as well as soaking my running cap and buffs at regular intervals to cool down. My left achilles and heel, which have been giving me a bit of grief since TP100, were grumbling so I was taking care not to push too hard in case this aggravated them further or worse.

Strolling into the aid station at Newlands Corner [Photo credit: Karen Webber]

I reached Box Hill in 5 1/2 hours, greeted by yet more volunteers who couldn’t do enough to help (as is always the case at Centurion Running races). I was inside the cut off by 1 1/2 hours. Rob Cowlin was on hand to offer encouragement once more, recalling that he’d reached the same stage later than me when he went on to finish the race in 2016. These little nuggets of advice, guidance and encouragement make such a difference along the way.

Box Hill to Knockholt

After a queue to cross the stepping stones the climb up to the too of Box Hill began. It’s at this point in the race that runners become familiar with wooden steps built into the hillside…. and later in the race they’ll be cursing them as they keep appearing! Stuart March, photographer extraordinaire and welcome giver of high fives, greeted me at the top of the steps before I then saw Karen again, accompanied by a couple of Old Codgers no doubt fresh from drinking an Ovaltine despite the warmth and humidity of the day. They did, however, dispense some sage advice.

Allan Rumbles in traditional post-Ovaltine seated position and Mark Thornberry wondering what I’m doing with my right hand

[Photo credit: Karen Webber]

The section between Box Hill and Reigate Hill is, to me, the toughest of the race (or at least that’s what I thought until I got to the Detling section…. more on that later). I lost lots of time here in 2017 when I bimbled along worried about tripping over tree roots, having done just that in spectacular fashion a month before the race when I totally stacked it and heavily bruised my right shoulder in the process.

Determined to minimise time lost I set about running as much of this 7 mile stretch as I could. And swearing at Colley Hill as I climbed the endless climb there (with much grumbling from my achilles) before a more gradual climb up to Reigate Hill and the aid station where the fabled Calippos can be bought from the café and enjoyed. I failed to spot Karen and the Calippo she had lined up for me, buying one after a quick splash of water on face in the toilets.

Calippo for GC, iced coffee for Karen at Reigate Hill aid station [Photo credit: Karen Webber]

Not only did I get a telling off from Karen for buying a Calippo when she had one ready for me (both happily consumed in the minutes to follow) but also a reminder to “Get a shift on” because I had lost time during that section and was now only 1h15m ahead of the cut offs. Brendan Turner delivered on his promise to have some mini pork pies waiting for me at the aid station (top mid ultra nutrition that) and I was soon on my way to Caterham, greeted there by Julian Desai for the third or fourth time today. That guy has a time machine I’m convinced of it!

Then, the steps that Dave Stuart has made his own. Sadly I was a tad too slow to take advantage of Mr Stuart’s annual improvised aid station halfway down. I was instead greeted by Karen, who soon wished she hadn’t when I reached for the anti chafing cream and liberally applied it to protect my increasingly hot and bothered undercarriage before I caught fire. I was a gentleman and turned my back to her to do so!

Looking up the steps that I would come down at around the 40 mile mark – and that’s only about half of them!

[Photo credit: Karen Webber]

After the steps is a lovely stretch of undulating single track trail which is quite fun to run along and offers fantastic views of … the traffic on the M25 running parallel. Soon after I reached more steps (there’s a theme here, isn’t there?!) heading down before the long climb up to the 43 mile aid station at Botley Hill. I was feeling tired but resolute and bearing the top of the climb I heard music playing and was then greeted by the big smiles of Tracey Watson (volunteering here before pacing me later) and Nikki Yeo. Apparently I didn’t look good at all and perked up once I reached the aid station, had some hugs and indulging in the Toffifee that Tracey had saved especially for me! Then the boiled eggs I’d requested were consumed, one there with the most amazing spinach I’ve ever eaten (skilfully and cheerfully held for me by Nikki Mills) and one on my travels. I left the aid station with a goodbye wave for Pete Watson, a Rocky style shout and re-energised. Top aid station reset that.

Being force fed Toffifee by Tracey, looking like I’ve just stepped out of Julian Desai’s time machine straight from a 1990s rave [Photo credit: Nikki Yeo]

Running down the trail, skipping over the tree roots with boiled egg in hand, I felt great. Only 7(ish) miles to halfway and a chance to regroup again at Knockholt. I kept running during this section, with a small number of short walking breaks, and arrived at Knockholt 2 hours before the cut off. I was maintaining a good buffer against the cut offs, giving me some wriggle room later if the wheels well and truly came off. I would spend around 20 minutes here, ticking into a small plate of pasta (courtesy of the ever present Rob Cowlin), a rice pudding and one of my much anticipated M&S Iced n Spiced buns… which had fared worse than me over the first 13 hours of the day!

Pasta scoffing at Knockholt – my face sums up the feeling upon seeing the state of my Iced n Spiced buns!

[Photo credit: Karen Webber]

They’d seen better days but I still scoffed one down! [Photo credit: Karen Webber]

For perspective, in 2017 I arrived with 45 minutes to go until the cut off and left less than 20 minutes ahead of the cut off. I was keen to avoid the pressure of sailing so close to the aid station cut offs that I experienced then, arriving at the 60 mile aid station Wrotham with 10 minutes to spare. This time around I set off from Knockholt with a 1 hour 40 minute buffer on the cut off and determined to keep it for the miles to come.

The note that Rob Cowlin left for me at Knockholt, on the back of a band of Runner Podcast beer mat – thanks again Rob

Zoe Norman and Liam Gibson’s half way note – they know I love a bit of Goggins philosophy!

Knockholt to Bluebell Hill – Tracey Time!

I felt good after the stop off at Knockholt and pushed on all the way to Otford, where I knew Tracey would be waiting to pace me for the next 20 miles. Tracey soon appeared, running down the road towards me with the biggest grin. She was so happy to be spending her Saturday night into Sunday morning running with me. Go figure!

Meeting up with pacer number 1, Tracey Watson, at Otford [Photo credit: Karen Webber]

Following on from her efforts at the Thames Path 100 in May, Tracey promptly set about informing me that I’d hate her by the end of our time together but that was okay because she was going to make damn sure that I got that buckle! Tracey, you were brilliant (again).

“Have a little drink for me Graham”

“Graham, have a bite to eat”

“Watch that tree root”

“I love the North Downs Way”

The last one was too much though Tracey…. 🙄🤔😲😉

We ran where we could (“running” being anything faster than a walk by this stage in the race), I was complimented on my ability to hike with purpose and crack out 15/16 minute miles doing this, and we did not get lost at all! I inwardly smiled when we passed the gate on the way out of Trosley Country Park that marked the end that of my race 2 years ago. I got to Wrotham with plenty of time to spare and after a quick turnaround I said farewell to Andy Law and we marched on. At Holly Hill aid station David Barker gave me a home made peanut butter cookie that his son had made – I should have taken two as they were 👌!

During Tracey’s stint as pacer we overtook about a dozen other runners excluding those we passed by as we zoomed in and out of aid stations. Oh, and I tripped on a stone and nearly stacked it at one point and sat in a load of nettles rather than retrace my steps a mere 50 feet (ultra rationale!). Arriving at Bluebell Hill aid station, having passed Sharon Dickson a few miles earlier (I was so relieved to see her finish later as she was in a dark place, literally and figuratively, when we encountered her on the trail). Thank you Tracey.

Bluebell Hill to Ashford

Pacer number 2, Pete Hammond, took over from Tracey at Bluebell Hill. Last year Pete posted in the Ultra Bandits Facebook group that he wasn’t planning any big races in 2019 so was available for pacing duties at the Centurion Running 100 milers. Given his track record (including completing the 250 mile Thames Ring 250) and his demeanor when I’ve met him at previous races I jumped at the chance and Pete agreed to pace me at the North Downs Way 100 and the Autumn 100. Top man Pete!

Pete’s intention was to get me to Detling aid station (mile 82) with a good buffer against the cut offs having been maintained and he set about the task quietly, efficiently and with good humour. We ran. We walked. We hiked with purpose. We ran downhill. We trudged uphill and up step after step after step on the stretch before Detling. And I knew there were more steps to come thereafter….. We passed three runners in the space of a couple of minutes who are lying on a bench, sitting on a bench with head in hands, and sitting on the grass respectively. One of these would run past us a few minutes later looking like a man possessed … I guess inspiration come from many different places on the trail.

Detling aid station came and went in a blur. Allie Bailey was running a Bad Boy Running aid station with a Hawaiian party theme and I got the most FYBs of the weekend on arrival. Thanks to Corinne Rodgers for picking a selection of food for me to takeaway while I drank coke and skilled it on the floor. Sorry I missed you Julius Naim. I said farewell to Karen, who we would not see until the finish in Ashford. I promised her I’d get there by my own steam and we were off. Karen handed note from Zoe and Liam to Pete and I asked to see it as we walked on. It was awesome! More Goggins inspiration to get it done. I was getting it done. No doubt.

Zoe, Liam and Goggins’ note at Detling

I knew that there were a final few hilly miles, with more steps, ahead but that soon enough we’d be enjoying relatively flat miles from Lenham to Ashford, 12 miles or so. As the sun rose and the head torches were put away we once again began to enjoy the views, if not the seemingly endless steps. The renowned steps down just outside of Detling were over before too long, and thankfully not overgrown, and the remaining steps up, and up, and up were “enjoyed” in the knowledge that THERE ARE NO MORE BLOODY STEPS AFTER THESE!!

At the Lenham aid station we once again crossed paths with Andrew Baillie, who I’d seen several times throughout the race as he was crewing before pacing a friend. It was good to catch up and he later told me that I seemed to get chirpier and look better as the race progressed. Go figure! Leaving Lenham we headed towards Dunn Street, the final aid station about 4 1/2 miles from the finish. The miles were being chalked up and I kept moving, sometimes needing a longer waking break between running but always moving forward. I’d given up on being able to keep the chafing under control hours ago and when we passed a young guy waking like John Wayne as we headed into the second field after Dunn Street I reassured him that his suffering would soon be over and to keep going (he got the biggest cheer of the weekend when he crossed the finish line about an hour after I did, still walking like that the whole way around the track!).

After we had passed through the church grounds and away from the North Downs Way for the final push to the finish we saw Rob Cowlin once more. I think he’d been using Julian’s time machine too! He hiked part me, high fived me and have me more encouragement as he headed up to Dunn Street to meet his runner.

By now I’d decided to walk it in. I’d been delighted that I still had running in my legs for the last few miles of TP100 and SDW100 and looking back I had it in me to run the last few miles here. However, I just didn’t feel like it and had worked out that as I was moving at a decent walking pace I would still finish in less than 29 hours, comfortably within the 30 hour cut off and a time that I would have taken with pleasure before the race. So we did just that. We walked, we talked and I thought about the finish. I was going to to this. I really was. Brilliant!!

The finish

Just before entering stadium I changed into my Team Super Bob t-shirt in tribute to my Dad. Cresting the last hill (the railway bridge!) and turning the corner we could see the entrance to the stadium. Karen was standing by the gate into the stadium holding a can of John Smith’s aloft with a big smile. I’d brought some with me to drink in tribute to my Dad (it was one of his favourite beers) after crossing the finish line. I smiled, told her to keep it for the finish, went through the gate and headed to the track. Around the track I went, running again with Pete on my shoulder telling me I’d done it. I smiled. I smiled. I ran. I turned the final bend and headed toward the finish line. Pete peeled away. Karen was stood on the other side of the finish line calling to me with a big smile on her face. “Come here you!” I raise my arms aloft and shouted “Come on!” as I crossed the line. Karen gave me a very big and lingering hug. It was lovely. It summed up the pride, relief, and joy I felt and of those who have supported me on my two year journey to get this monkey off my back and finally get that #BuckleForBob. Zoe then handed me that buckle and gave me another hug. I had done it. I had done it!

28 hours 34 minutes 59 seconds

103.9 miles

1 buckle

Stuart March captured the money brilliantly, as ever:

Finish line joy unbounded [Photo credit: Stuart March]

Two thirds of the amazing team who helped me on my quest for this buckle at the second attempt, Pete and Karen – Tracey was at home blubbing with happiness if she was true to her word while pacing [Photo credit: Stuart March]

I was true to my word and toasted my Dad with a John Smith’s, once I’d had a shower and was still celebrating when I heard that Sharon had finished. She’d made it with 15 minutes to spare. That made me happier than when I crossed the line – Sharon, you’re a true warrior.

With Zoe celebrating Sharon’s finish – brilliant stuff [Photo credit: Stuart March]

More hugs followed from Nici Griffin, Lou Fraser and others I should remember but can’t (sorry). It was all a really pleasant blur.

Now for the Autumn 100. The final part of the Grand Slam attempt and journey. The Grand Slam is still on.

That makes me very, very happy!!

Dad and #BuckleForBob are united ♥️

Final reflection:

Gaiters are lifesavers. Thanks to Simon Welch for lending me his Salomon gaiters which kept my feet protected. No change of socks needed. No blisters. Top result.

South Downs Way 100 – The Grand Slam journey continues

Oh good. Cows.

[Photo credit: Byrom, via http://www.pexels.com]

I’ve just run the first 18 miles or so of the Centurion Running South Downs Way 100. I’ve “enjoyed” the climb up Old Winchester Hill, the first of many, many climbs that I’ll get to enjoy during the race, and enter the field heading down to Whitewool Farm and Meon Valley Spring. I know this field often has cows in it. I also know that it’s a fun downhill to enjoy. As I follow other runners into the field I smile as I take on the glorious view of the lush, rolling expanse of Hampshire countryside … and no cows! Excellent.

My joy is short lived as after a short run down the hill I notice something at the point where the trail narrows. There’s only one way through and I see other runners stopping and stepping to the side as what looks like a golf buggy with two farmers on it slowly edges uphill, filling the path, followed by at least 80 cows walking 3 abreast and mooing their displeasure at us. Bugger. I really, really don’t like cows and don’t want to have to deal with this but I’m buggered if I’m going to let some bovine bullies get between me and finishing this race so I step to the side, let them make their way past, and continue down the hill. Only to find 5 stray cows ambling up the hill, one of which walks straight across in front of me and blocks my way. Sod this, I think, and move toward it. It flinches and walks out of the way. I’m winning at life today!

It won’t last long…

The Start: Mattersley Bowl, Winchester

In the week or so before the race I’d been excited. More excited than I has for any other race. Keen to get going and get race 2 of the Grand Slam attempt underway. It was only 5 weeks since the Thames Path 100 and I’d managed 2 weeks of running in between. I felt good heading into the race though, despite some concerns about a niggly achilles since TP100.

Lego GC was just as excited in the build up to the race!

[Image credit: Christopher Allen @christopherallendesign on Instagram]

I slept fitfully the night before the race, hearing the wind and the rain and hoping it’d calm down by race morning. When it was time to get up and get ready it was still windy but had stopped raining. I was grateful that Nathan Hill had answered my plea for help and agreed to pick me up at 4-15am and give me a lift to Winchester. Unfortunately, my running buddy Simon Welch had decided to withdraw from the race as he hadn’t managed to shake off the back pain that he’d been having since twisting his back getting out of his car 2 days before the race.

I arrived just after 5am and spent a few minutes catching up with Glen Willie (previous Grand Slammer), Mike Hogan, Pete Hammond, Julius Naim, Stuart March, Chris Mills, Nikki Mills and others as well as getting an FYB and a welcome hug from the Real Allie Bailey at registration.

Looking chipper at the start

[Photo credit: Mike Hogan]

The race started at a new location, Mattersley Bowl, and we ran a 3.5 mile circuit of the estate before joining the South Downs Way and heading East. James Elson, I love the new start and the first few miles. Good call.

Still smiling – and so I should be in the first mile!

[Photo credit: Glen Willie]

Game plan

Uphill – hike with purpose

Flat – jog/easy run

Downhill – run

Repeat

Execution

Part 1: Winchester to Washington

The first “half” of the race (54 miles) went well. Mostly anyway.

I was running my own race, resisting getting drawn into any chasing of other runners at this stage and switching my brain off (as had worked so well for me with my run:walk strategy at TP100) to move according to the terrain (up/flat/down). I didn’t really look at my watch other than to gauge distance covered and time of day.

Old Winchester Hill running

[Photo credit: Stuart March]

I did my best to get in and out of aid stations as quickly as possible, although I had to stop at QE and Cocking to attend to some rubbing on my right foot by reapplying Vaseline. By the time I got to Bignor Hill, having got wet feet from a torrential downpour between QE and Harting Down and feeling some rubbing on the bottom of my right foot, I was getting a little concerned about blisters and sorting them out. I asked the AS volunteers, including Ian Lang and Julian Desai, if the medics could take a look at my foot. She advised me not to continue running as the blister across the ball of my foot would only get worse but knew I’d ignore that so put a pad on my foot and wrapped it in bandage to provide some extra cushioning until half way where I could (and should) change my socks. I thanked her, grabbed some food and MTFU pills and headed out of the AS and up the hill. Yes, another one!

Smiling for the camera because I’m enjoying running down Butser Hill

[Photo credit: Stuart March]

The first half of the SDW is my favourite part of the course. There are rolling sections with fabulous views, wooded sections, some single track sections, climbs like Old Winchester Hill, Butser Hill, Harting Down and Amberley Mount, and some steady downhills which are great fun. It was also, as ever, great to see trail running friends old and new at the aid stations along the way, including David Harvey, Paul Pickford, Mark Cameron, Zoe Norman, Liam Gibson, and Corinne Rodgers. These are moments to savour and store in the memory bank to draw upon later in the race when a smile eludes you while not getting too comfortable and chatting for too long.

Wet upon arrival at Harting Down aid station and cheered by the sight of Irn Bru and jelly snakes, courtesy of Zoe Norman (cheesy grins, models’ own)

[Photo credit: Liam Gibson]

Its the little things that really matter – such a kind gesture from Zoe Norman

Just after the bridge across the River Arun at Amberley I decided to break back into a run after a short walking break and managed to go crashing to the ground after less than a dozen steps. Luckily, I put my hands out and landed on my right side but not my head. I was a little shaken up and sat for a few minutes to compose myself, looked after by the two runners I’d been walking and talking with for a few minutes and a kind passed by who emerged with a full first aid kit to sort my hand out. My right leg, elbow and shoulder were grazed and my right hip bruised but I was soon good to go and started running again just after crossing the main road.

Pretty similar to my comedy fall in Amberley

Thankfully, the rest of part 1 was less eventful! Arriving at the 50 mile AS, Kithurst Hill, I made a mental note of the time and noticed that I was 50 minutes slower reaching the half way mark than in 2015. This made me doubt if I would be able to beat my previous time of 28h20m, something I quickly put into a box as I reminded myself that the only goal that mattered for this race was to finish within the cut offs to keep my Grand Slam dream alive. Quicker than 2015 would be a bonus.

And so I savoured the opportunity to keep running as I followed the alternative SDW route to Washington, which has a lovely downhill that goes on for a while. Matt Bevan, my pacer, was waiting at the village hall to greet me and help me get sorted.

Pit stop

Status report:

Blisters – yep, right foot very ouchy, left ouchy

Chafing – none (same as TP100)

Energy – stable

Apart from the prolonged downpour just before midday, the weather had been pretty much perfect. Ideal running conditions, and much cooler than last year (when I got sunstroke volunteering at the Harting Down AS). I had stayed on top of my hydration and nutrition, eating and drinking little amounts regularly, and was feeling good. I was, however, really looking forward to the drop bag staple that awaited me at Washington…

How long should you spend at the half way aid station? What should you do? Should I change my clothes, or just socks? I could have asked myself these questions repeatedly – but thankfully that’s what the Centurion Running Facebook Group is filled with on the weeks before race day do I’d already planned what I was going to do.

I changed out of my t-shirt and arm sleeves and put on a fresh long sleeved base layer with t-shirt on top, after topping up on the Udderly Smooth chafing prevention. I also asked Matt to take a look at my battered, blistered feet (the glamour of pacing) and a medic too. Consensus? Change your socks and grin and bear it all the way to Eastbourne! Check! Done.

A quick cleaning of teeth (it works!) and more faffing to tip up GC’s race vest pantry with more treats followed before I set off on part 2 with Matt, waking up the road munching on a bag of fish n chips and slurping Irn Bru. Who said ultra running wasn’t classy?!

Part 2: Washington to Eastbourne

Chanctonbury Ring at sunset

[Photo credit: Flavien Bascoul]

And so began the climb up to Chancronbury Ring. As Matt and I caught up on the latest developments in our respective lives we both commented that the climb armed to go on wayyyy longer than we remembered from running the race before. This was to be a recurring conversation point throughout part 2…

Truleigh Hill, seriously, how long do you go on for?!

Ooh, a downhill after Housedean Farm! Ace. Oh. Now were going up. In the dark. Past huge cows asleep on the path right next to us! And on. And on. And up. And up.

As for you, hill out of Southease!!

On a serious note, I have so much respect for the fast runners on this course. How the heck you guys can average 8 minute miles and cover the last 4 big hills in particular (from Housedean Farm onwards) so quickly is incredible. Chapeau.

Back to the race. Once we got Chanctonbury Ring Matt spotted an opportunity to run as the ground levelled off, so we ran. As I had during TP100 with Tracey Watson, I broke into a run before being asked on several occasions and before I knew it we were running on and on as we headed down past the pigs to the Botolphs AS. I love that section. It was getting dark now so the head torches came out and on, the jackets having already been donned as the temperature began to drop.

Onwards past Devil’s Dyke to the best aid station of the lot, Saddlescombe Farm, where I feasted on eggs, egg sandwiches and more. Ace. I wasn’t looking forward to the biggest gap between aid stations if part 2 after this, 10 miles to Housedean Farm. In reality, the time passed relatively quickly as Matt and I chatted away (him more than me as I clam up a bit when I get tired), heading up to and past Ditchling Beacon as then breaking into a run for most of the downhill stretch after Blackcap and before the short, sharp, twisty climb up through the woods bear Housedean Farm. One more downhill saw us pass another couple of runners before reaching the 76 mile AS, drop bag number two (with iced n spiced bun and Irn Bru number two) and portaloo.

What struck me as we arrived at this and the last A was how many runner were sitting around looking dejected and done. I was maintaining my positive attitude and focusing on moving forward, aware that I was consistently 2 hours ahead of the cut off at the aid stations (and would remain do for pretty much the whole race). I was eating into the distance by maintaining a run when I could and Matt was doing a great job keeping me focused and moving and checking in on me when I stopped. By now I had developed a strategy that worked for me when I was feeling tired and the need to stop – I stopped, our my hands on my knees, looked around, then started again. That was it. I think giving myself permission to stop while expecting myself to continue really helped maintain momentum.

And so to the big climbs. The last 24 miles. Boy oh boy. The climbs went on for ever, with false summits galore. The ground was so hard underfoot in many parts of the course that my feet were hurting more and more but what else did I expect after running 80+ miles anyway?! I started to have minor hallucinations in the dark, seeing the shape of a Roman Centurion’s helmet in some sheep dung and a female runner lying horizontally across a fence with her hand on the handle ready to open the gate for us! Matt’s conclusion: “We need to get you a coffee at the next aid station mate!” After being guided over the station steps by Garfield Jones, I got my coffee!

[Photo credits: Matt Bevan]

In between Housedean Farm and Southease we were treated to a stunning sunrise and played the guess what it is game: river, early morning mist or both? It kept me distracted. I kept running where I could. We marched on, me wincing from time to time as the hard ground aggravated my blisters. A downhill generally led to “I guess we’d better run this” being thought or spoken, so we did. Once we reached Alfriston I knew the worst hills were over. When we left it and headed towards Jevington I knew that I was mistaken! Then we were at Jevington, did go into the AS to thank the volunteers and top up on water for the final stretch, and on our way to that trig point. I’m looking forward to teaching the top of the final climb and taking a photo to mark the fact, just as Dan Park suggested in 2015.

At the top of the last climb, from Jevington, recreating the same scene from the same race in 2015

[Photo credit: Matt Bevan]

it was lovely to see Tracey when we reached the trig point, bit not so good to hear that she’d been struggling and a bit light headed so had to rest for a while. When you reach the trig point you know what’s coming next – the gully of doom, a single-track downhill for about 3/4 mile or so which has the potential to trip up at every turn. Given my reputation for tripping over my own feet, I made my way down it following in Matt’s wake at a sensible walking pace.

We reached the bottom and were on the road by some houses. On a downhill section. There was nothing else for it. I had to run, so off we went, then onto the footpath by the garages and down past several other runners who were walking until we reached the main road. I remember smiling when I heard Victoria Louise Thompson say that I was looking good and doing well to be running at this stage in the race. That was great to hear and I was feeling determined.

I was in a mission, like I was during the last mile of TP100. Then it was because a sub 26 hour finish was within my grasp. This time it was because I knew I could get to the finish in under 28 hours, setting a new course PB.

Boy was this sign a welcome sight!

[Photo credit: Claire Smedley]

I ran. And kept running. When I ran this race in 2015, my first 100 miler, I walked all the way from the trig point to the track. This time I was going to run as much as I could and managed to run 90% of the last 2 miles, passing other runners along the way and smiling as I knew that I was going to finish the second race of the Grand Slam. I wanted to do it in style, finishing strongly, and Matt gracefully bowed out leaving me to enjoy the 400m finishing stretch around the track and the standard, genuine and much appreciated whooping and hollering that is the finish line at a Centurion Running race. I absolutely loved that lap of the track and was delighted to have paced my race evenly enough to have it in me to run it in.

I gave a mighty roar as I crossed the finish, with Zoe beating John Fitzgerald to hand me my second SDW100 buckle. That was a lovely moment. 27h50m, a 30 minute course PB and below my target time of 28 hours.

I gained 96 places between Cocking and Eastbourne, the last 2/3 of the race, through consistent pacing

This guy! Big thanks to Matt Bevan for pacing me for the second half of the race and keeping me focused

[Photo credit: Matt Bevan]

Relishing the finish

[Photo credits: Zoe Norman]

And in video format

[Video credit: Zoe Norman]

It’s done and I’m absolutely overjoyed

[Photo credit: Stuart March]

Get in! I’ve only gone and finished the first 2 races of the 200 mile Grand Slam! Onwards, with a smile. At least I will once my feet and blisters gave healed and I’ve had a couple of weeks off to recover.

Having only 5 weeks between TP100 and SDW100 was tough. I made it through. The Grand Slam is still on and that makes me very happy.

Post-race bling shot

My fourth 100 mile finisher’s buckle, second SDW 100 buckle, and second buckle of 2019

Its a long way that!

Lessons learned

  • I can still run in the later stages of a 100 miler – TP100 was not a fluke
  • I have the mental strength to keep going and keep running even when I have many, many miles on my legs already
  • Hallucinations don’t have to be unicorns and extravagant, they can be fairly mundane and humorous
  • My foot care skills need improving

I’ve known about this book for years and finally invested in a copy after this race battered my feet to bits

Onwards

When I made the decision to take on the challenge of completing the 100 mile Grand Slam challenge I knew it would be tough. I’m delighted that do far I’ve been up to it and am aware that the challenge is mental as much as physical.

It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.

Edmund Hillary was spot on.

Bring on the North Downs Way and redemption for my DNF in 2017 . Onwards. With a smile.

The Grand Slam table after two races, 47 still in the running.

Thames Path 100 – The Grand Slam begins

  • “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response.” – Viktor Frankl

“If it’s endurable, then endure it. Stop complaining.” – Marcus Aurelius

How did I get here?

No, I’m not lost (which makes a change) nor am I having an existential crisis! Running ultramarathons is physically demanding but having mental strength and the fortitude to keep going is key to finishing them. Sometimes it’s just not your day and a DNF (Did Not Finish) is the result. At other times it’s tough but we can find inner reserves that will help us to keep going, to keep moving forward, to get to the finish.

I ran my first ultramarathon, the North Downs Way 50 mile race, in May 2013. Over the past 6 years I’ve run 4 x 50km races, 4 x 50 milers, 1 x 24 hour race, and now 4 x 100 milers. I’ve finished all of these apart from the North Downs Way 100 in 2017, which I didn’t deserve to finish.After the DNF at NDW100 I decided to reset, rebuild and refocus and throughout 2018 I trained consistently for the first time since my first 100 mile race, the South Downs Way 100 in 2015, using the excellent online training platform TrainAsOne and as my fitness developed I had some good races. I had my eyes on a big goal for 2019, the Centurion Running 100 mile Grand Slam.

What’s the Grand Slam?

Centurion Running put on some of the most popular and well organised ultramarathons in the UK. This is where my ultra running began in 2013 and who better to race with for this challenge? The Grand Slam is 4 x 100 mile races to be completed between May and October: The Thames Path 100, South Downs Way 100, North Downs Way 100 and Autumn 100. I wrote about my reasons for taking on the Grand Slam in 2019 in a previous blog post.

Getting ready to race

I had booked to stay at the Travelodge Kew Bridge the night before and met up with Sharon Dickson and Dan Park for a chat over a dinner of BBQ chicken pizza and salted caramel chocolate brownies with ice cream (because I’m an athlete and all that) before going back to my room to pack and repack my kit and drop bags for the 4th consecutive day!

Drop bags ready!

Map in case of emergency (not needed), Ewok for luckThankfully, a crying baby in the room next door calmed down eventually and I actually had a decent night’s sleep – much better than the night before Wendover Woods 50. Sharon, Dan and I got a taxi to the start in Richmond in good time to register before the hordes descended. This made for a restful and calm build up, with time to chat with Chris Mills, Dave Stuart and Francis-Graham Dixon (the latter both Grand Slam finishers in previous years) and say hi to lots of friendly faces including Louise Ayling, Lee Kelly, Drew Sheffield, Nici Griffin, Stuart March and James Elson, the Race Director.

Drop bags handed over, race number collected, nerves under control (for once)Dan wisely suggested we head over to the sanctuary of Pret-A-Manger a couple of minutes walk from the start where he grabbed a coffee and a bite to eat and I took a most welcome phone call from Zoe Norman, wishing me all the best for the race and telling me to get my arse to Reading aid station where she’s been waiting with the previously promised M&S Iced n Spiced buns for me! That call gave me a real boost, thank you Zoe.

Dan, Sharon, me and Face at the start [Photo credit: Dan Park]

Back at the start we listened to James Elson’s pre-race briefing with the traditional plea for runners not to descend upon him at the finish pointing to their GPS watches and telling him it was “100 and I don’t care miles” rather than the advertised 100 miles and then at 9:30am we were off and making our way to Oxford. We had until 1:30pm the next day (28 hours) to get there.

The route

The Centurion Running website describes the TP100 as follows:”The 100 mile course is a marked point to point race which takes runners from Richmond in South West London to the centre of Oxford. The course follows the meandering route of the Thames against it’s flow and is flat and fast with the majority on groomed paths/ trails and paved pathway. There are some truly stunning sections of the route showing off the best of English riverside scenery and life on the Thames.”

Yep, there were some stunningly beautiful scenes as we made our way up the Thames. Many of the houses and houseboats were the stuff of dreams (and only available to multi-millionaires!). Running past Hampton Court Palace and Windsor Castle were particular highlights, along side streets less so. Above all, it was relentlessly flat and I was glad that I had decided upon a run/walk strategy from the outset.

Hampton Court Palace [Photo credit: Dan Park]

Running across one of the many brides along the Thames Path [Photo credit: Dan Park]Dan and I ran with each other on and off for the first 51 miles to Henley, catching up with each other as our respective run/walk strategies overlapped from time to time, arriving at the half way checkpoint in Henley at around the same time.

Dan taking a running selfie, me waving in the distance [Photo credit: Dan Park]

Running into Henley and to the half way point as the light faded [Photo credit: Dan Park]

A real boost upon arrival at Henley – seeing Jenny “J-Star” Smith and her husband Gary, who were enjoying a weekend away in Henley and were there to greet me as I arrived in Henley [Photo credit: Gary Smith]

Clifton Hampden in the early morning [Photo credit: Pete Watson]

Dan and I ran with each other on and off for the first 51 miles to Henley, catching up with each other as our respective run/walk strategies overlapped from time to time. I caught up with and passed Dan on the way to Reading aid station (mile 58 ish) and didn’t see him after that. I was sad to hear when I reached the finish that Dan had unfortunately withdrawn from the race at the Streatley aid station (mile 71 ish) suffering from nausea and the cold. I had the pleasure of sharing the last 20 miles of my debut 100 miler with Dan. He’s a top guy and I’m sure he’ll be back stronger and with a smile.

Pacing

I had decided before the race to adopt a 9 minute run/1 minute walk strategy from the start and keep with it for as long as possible. After topping up at aid stations I also walked and ate, continuing to walk for a few minutes to let the food settle in my stomach a little before starting to run again. This worked well and helped me get through the first 5 hours without any sustained slumps and aches and pains.

Still running with a smile in the afternoon sunshine, in between rain showers [Photo credit: Stuart March]Seven or eight rain showers throughout the afternoon meant a bit of a stop start approach as my waterproof jacket came on and off. Just after leaving the aid station at Cookham the heavens opened and I was worried for a few minutes that hypothermia might be a real risk as my hands got battered and really cold. Thankfully, the rain stopped a few minutes later and the jacket was off again as the sun broke through the clouds.

From the 5 hours mark to the half way point I switched to a 5/1 run/walk strategy and then a worked really well. As the race had progressed running 9 minutes seemed to be much more of an effort and running for 5 minutes was more manageable while still meaning that I was running for 25 minutes out of every 30. Well, most of the time anyway.

On a few occasions rather than breaking into a run when it was time to do so I kept walking because I felt that I needed a rest. Thankfully, I recognised the impact this would have on my race timewise and had a word with myself along the lines of “Come on GC! You fool! You’re not getting away with that. Now you’re going to have to run for the next 11 minutes….” And I did. I tapped into the inner reserves I had seen myself use in previous races to keep running.

The first half of the race seemed to pass relatively quickly and having a timed run/walk strategy took most of the thinking out of the equation. All I had to do was to run for 9 minutes (5 in later stages) and walk for 1 minute. “Don’t think, just do” as I once heard ultrarunner Gary Robbins say on a podcast.I passed the 50 mile mark on my watch in a new distance PB of 11 hours 11 minutes and arrived at Henley aid station (52 miles ish) around 9:15pm. I had hoped to get there by 8:30pm on a good day but still had plenty of time to play with inside the aid station cut off.

This is where I met my pacer Tracey Watson and he husband Pete, who would be crewing us. In the second half I would have continued with the 5/1 strategy before switching to 5/3 or 5/5 to keep making progress. However, as we left Henley, cup of tea in hand and dressed in 5 layers for protection against the extreme cold by the river overnight, I was to realise how lucky I was to have Tracey pacing me.

Know the course so you can identify the runnable parts and those where walking is the best option.

Tracey is an experienced ultra runner and all round wonder woman who have completed the 100 mile Grand Slam three times. Not satisfied with that challenge, she also completed the Centurion Running Double Slam – 4 x 50 mile races and 4 x 100 mile races – more than once! Outstanding. So when Tracey gave me advice during our run from Henley to Oxford I listened.

The next 50 miles pretty much went like this:

T – “Can you gave a sip of your Irn Bru/water for me please Graham?”

Me – “I’m doing it now!”

T – “Eat a little something for me now please Graham.”

Me – “I’m eating a bar/iced n spiced bun/some wine gums/jelly snakes/fruit/sandwich/etc”

T – “Drink some water to help it go down please Graham”

Me – “Yes Tracey”

T – “This bit is runnable so we can get some time in the bank. Can you do an way run for a little while for me Graham?”

Me – “Yes/sure/go/I don’t want to it I will”

T – “Time for a walking break now Graham, we need to get your heart rate down for a few minutes”

Me – “Okay”

T – “Right, we’re coming up to the aid station. Let’s get in and out quickly.”

Me – “Okay…. Yes, I’m almost done..”

And repeat!

Throw a few of these into the mix and you gave the full picture:

T – “You’re doing really well. I’m so impressed.” (GC blushes)

Me – “Let’s run now!” (Admittedly, only a few times but, hey, I’m chuffed I had the get up and go to do it at all!)

T – “Excellent!”

Me – “I need a wee so I’m going to stop for a moment” (I still can’t believe how many times I had to do this in the second half!!)

T – “Okay, I’ll keep walking. At least it means your kidneys are okay!”

As we kept moving, running and walking, the miles started to tick over and the wonderful moments when the sun starts to shine through the darkness and the headtorch can be switched off gave me a boost. The new day means the finish line is getting closer. I started to do some calculations in my head and it looks almost certain that I’m going to finish in 26 hours something. Yet there is a lingering hope that I might sneak under this and get a finish time beginning with 25. I keep this to myself, focusing on moving forward but consciously picking up the pace during the walking sections.

If you zoom in really close you might be able to see me with my marvellous pacer Tracey Watson running across the bridge at Clifton Hampden, 85 miles into the race [Photo credit: Pete Watson]

With Tracey as the headtorch lit part of the race came to a close, no idea where! [Photo credit: Pete Watson]

There was time for a few bullocks to cause me to inwardly gasp as they blocked our path through. I stayed calm as Tracey prepared to “sort them out” if they don’t move but in the end they moved away when Miles, who had been running with us for the last coupe of hours, turned into the Cow Whisperer! See, my drop bag tags were spot on #A Cowsareevil

Just after Clifton Hampden aid station, with 15 miles to go, I suddenly felt an urge to run. I could see the fields we were entering are runnable and promptly asked Tracey to “Go!” We ran on and on, up a steady slope and winding single track. I loved it!

We continued the run/walk strategy but I was increasingly focused and determined to keep up the running and not death march it in, as I had for at SDW100 in 2015. During the walking parts in the final could of miles I managed to maintain 16 minute mile pace and overtook another four runners. As Tracey had pointed out during our run together, we had overtaken more than two dozen runners. Pacing matters!!

As we headed along the final stretch of the Thames Path to the finish Tracey asked what my watch said. “25 hours and 54 minutes something”, I replied. “You’re going to hate me for saying this, but if we get a shift on you can finish with a time starting with 25. Let’s go.” If only you’d known Tracey! I was hoping for this and immediately broke into what felt like a tempo run but was more like 11 minute mile pace for the last section.

Upon seeing the blue finish arch I had the bit between my teeth and urged by Tracey I “ran off at pace” (it’s all relative after 100 miles!), heading through the gate and into the field and sprinting toward and across the finish line. I so wanted to get under 26 hours. I managed it by 55 seconds and was handed my finisher’s buckle by top man Tim Lambert (good luck in Squaw Valley at the Western States 100 in June Tim).

The sign I’d been waiting for during the previous 25 hours and 58 minutes [Photo credit: Tim Lambert]

This is the best I’ve ever paced an ultra – from 228th position after 12 miles to 143rd (out of 225 finishers) at the end of the race.

It must be true if it’s on Strava!

Absolute joy at the finish line [Photo credit: Stuart March]

After I failed to get a #BuckleForBob at the North Downs Way 100 in 2017 I dusted myself down, refocused, worked hard and got this one done – this one was for you Dad, we love you and miss you Super Bob [Photo credit: Stuart March]

My first 100 mile finisher’s buckle since October 2016

Thames Path 100 finisher’s t-shirt – I’m aiming to get the set this year and the Grand Slam finisher’s t-shirt (and buckle) to go with it

Nutrition, hydration and aid stations

A typical Centurion Running aid station buffet, only this one featured Andy Law’s totally amazing chocolate salty balls [Photo credit: Zoe Norman]

Several weeks ago I called Rodrigo Freeman, another previous Grand Slam finishers who had also paced me (along with Ashley Hurd) during my last 100 mile finish at the Autumn 100 in 2016, to discuss my Grand Slam attempt.

He had reminded me of the importance of getting on and out of aid stations quickly to minimise time lost faffing and chatting to volunteers (pleasant as it may be). I made a real effort to do this from the first aid station onwards, soft flasks I hand ready to be refilled and freezer bag filled with food and sweets before a quick march out of the aid station. Tracey noticed me speeding up at the aid stations as the second half of the race progressed.

Thanks again to all the volunteers for making the journey a much more enjoyable one than if it were self supported and for looking after each and every one of us along the way. I’ve done a lot of volunteering at Centurion races and it’s the attention to detail, smiles and heightened sense of community and being in this together that makes them stand out. It was great to see many faces I knew out there volunteering, like Ian Lang and Ken Fancett (multiple Grand Slammer and 100 mile finisher and all round legend who Dave is determined he’ll beat in a 100 miler one day).

Special mention to the wonderful Zoe Norman, aid station manager and friend, who had the promised M&S Iced n Spiced buns waiting for me on arrival, after giving me the biggest hug ever. My goodness, that made me feel so welcome and was much appreciated Zoe. The hug was good too! It was great to see Andy Law there too.

Being greeted by a very smiley Zoe at Reading – I’m really happy to see her, can’t you tell behind the tired eyes?! [Photo credit: Zoe Norman]

Styling it out at Reading aid station – note freezer bag full of food to eat on the way to the next one [Photo credit: Zoe Norman]

It was great to see Drew Sheffield at Streatley, where I had a cup of baked beans that went down really well, and Lou Fraser at the almost last aid station at Abingdon, where Gareth Allen told me to get a move on after a quick change of clothing into a fresh long sleeved top and my Team Super Bob t-shirt (thanks crew Pete).

Big hair and a smile for Lou at Abingdon aid station – 9 miles to the finish! [Photo credit: Lou Fraser]

Eating a couple of wine gums during each 1 minute walk break seemed to work really well for me in the first half of the race, keeping my energy levels topped up nicely without overloading my stomach.

Pre-race food: A 33Shake pre-workout shake provided sustained, slow release energy.

In-race: A Chia Charge flapjack, three 33Shake chia gels, two Veloforte bars, two iced n spiced buns, one packet of jelly snakes, two lunchbox size malt loaf bars, one small packet of nuts and seeds, aid station food (various sweet, savoury and fruit).

Aid station resets: pasta and Ambrosia rice pudding pot (Henley), bakes beans (Streatley).

Hydration: water, a couple of cups of coke in total, two cups of tea, 2 bottles of IrnBru (Henley and Streatley drop bags).

How well did the kit work?

Blisters: two (neither bothered me until the finish)

Chafing: none (I couldn’t believe it either!)

Cold: night time layers kept me warm

I’m really happy with that outcome!

Shoes: Salomon Sense Pro 2, comfortable if a little harsh on hard ground

Socks: Drymax changed for Hilly Twin Skin at halfway, the extra padding most welcome 50 miles in

Underwear: Decathlon boxers (£4!) worked a treat with Udderly Smooth anti-chafing cream applied before the start and reapplied at halfway

Shorts: Ronhill Stride 5″ shorts, no issues

T-shirt: Bad Boy Running merch plus arm sleeves for first half of the race, comfortable

Cap: Kalenji, breathable and comfortable

Gloves: Kalenji, warm and great quality

Warm hat: Unknown brand, worked fine

Waterproof jacket: Inov8 Raceshell 150, excellent

Head torch: LED Lenser MH10,b  torch

And lots and lots of layers plus buffs and a warm hat for the night section

What did I learn?

I can run when I’ve thought I couldn’t in previous races and having a consistent run/walk strategy helped me to eat into the race distance more quickly than when I’ve run out of steam and marched it in (SDW100 in 2015). Eating and drinking little and often right from the start helped me to sustain energy levels and avoid crashes. Maintaining a positive, focused attitude and concentrating on running the mile I was in helped me to make good progress without feeling overwhelmed by the miles still to run.

Overall, I’m absolutely delighted with how TP100 went for me. It gives me a confidence boost ahead of the races to come, starting with the SDW100. It’s now 9 days on from the finish and I’ve rested and recovered, will do some cycling this week and then resume running for a couple of weeks before taper and SDW100. Bring on the hills and the beautiful, undulating route. Onwards.

IMG_20190512_190704_165

Lenham Cross Winter Marathon – Hitting the North Downs Way for some steps…

Last Sunday I drove 100 miles to Detling in Kent to run the inaugural Hit The Trail Running event, the Lenham Cross Winter Marathon. Race Director Tremayne Cowdry has picked a cracker of a route there and I’m sure that this race will be a feature for many years to come. It was well organised, inclusive, the route was well marked and there was some lovely cake on offer at the finish, courtesy of Tremayne’s Mum and her friend. Bonza! It was great to catch up with some friendly faces, including chip timing maestro Chris Mills, previous Grand Slammer Phil Bradburn, and fellow wannabe Grand Slammer Lee Kelly.

Allan Rumbles and RD Tremayne Cowdry enjoying the thought of the runners having fun with steps on the course!

[Photo credit: Allan Rumbles]

This race provided me with a great opportunity to recce some of the later miles of the NDW100 route (Bluebell Hill to Lenham Cross) and test my fitness. I’ve run some hills in training but have mainly been running flattish trails and roads since January. Oh, and I had the famous Detling steps to enjoy along the way…

The race is split into two out and back sections, the first from Detling to Bluebell Hill and back (around 8 miles) and the longer second section from Detling to Lenham Cross and back. It was a beautiful day and I soon removed my arm warmers and embraced the rare experience of running in a t-shirt in February, even wondering if I might get a little sunburnt! I had decided to resist looking at my pace on my watch as much as I could and to focus on running to feel, making sure to run the flats and downs (however short the section might be) and hike the hills with purpose rather than bumbling along. It was working well as I reached the first aid station, Detling village hall, in good time and was greeted by a smiling Tremayne.

The first sign of steps and we hadn’t even reached the Detling ones yet!

Still not at Detling!

A welcome reminder that I was still on the correct route!

One of several views along the route that encompass why tail running is do good for the soul – the early morning most visible below

After a quick top up of water bottles at Detling I marched on up the hill to rejoin the North Downs Way, soon enjoying the gradual downhill along the Pilgrims Way. Then a sharp left into a field led to a spell of uphill hiking intermingled with running as the single track levelled off before climbing again. This continued until the Detling steps – which seem to strike feat into so many runners from the NDW100 race reports and Centurion Running Facebook group posts – appeared.

Views from the North Downs Way aren’t too shabby – this one was looking down to the South East of Detling

The view looking back towards Detling isn’t too bad either!

The Detling steps – there wasn’t much opportunity to run these downhills, at least not with my (lack of) coordination anyway!

After reaching the bottom of these steps were able to “enjoy” another uphill climb!

Heading East towards Lenham the trail featured more climbs, including more steps, some more downhills, and mainly hard packed gravel and country tracks/roads, with a bit of mud thrown in for good measure. Quite how I managed to avoid tripping over my own feet and impaling myself on the barbed wire fence running alongside a narrow path on a runnable downhill section I don’t know. I was very happy about that though!

Mind your feet on this bit!

Lots of runnable tracks as well as steps

The Pilgrim sculpture just off the trail a couple of miles from Lenham Cross – he looked as fed up as me at that point as my legs were tiring but my spirit remained strong

Cheer up fella, the sun is shining and it’s t-shirt running weather in February!

The stretch from the second aid station at Hollingbourne to the turnaround point and third aid station at Lenham Cross marked a bad patch of the race for me. I was struggling to keep moving at my earlier pace and miscalculated how far I had to go until the turnaround. I thought I hadn’t even covered half of the race distance yet, forgetting about the first 8 mile out and back! The Pilgrim sculpture caught my eye and cheered me up and I took the opportunity to go off trail for a quick selgie with the big man to cheer myself up. This helped me reset and regroup mentally, trotting on to the turnaround a couple of miles away.

Lenham Cross memorial – much better photos are available!

Now it was time to dig in and get rid race done. I knew what was coming on the way back to Detling and maintained a run when you can, walk the hills (and downhill steps) strategy. The winter sunshine and unseasonably warm weather was making for an enjoyable day out and I was focused and kept moving. Before the day had started I thought that if I could finish in around 6h30m I’d be happy with my race and how my fitness is building in the lead up to the Thames Path 100.

As I made my way back to Detling I could see that this finish time was within my grasp, something such helped me to keep going and keep running rather where in previous races my head has gone and I’ve resorted to walking more in the later stages. I was absolutely delighted to see the part set of steps before the mainly downhill section back to Detling.

Joy unbounded upon seeing the steps back up to Detling from the final time

Cracking on, I heard towards the finish and was very happy to cross the line in just over 6h21m.

Only a few hundred metres left to go

Happy days – good race bling

Overall, I’m delighted with how this race went. I didn’t get lost. I didn’t lose my head and suffer a prolonged lose of confidence mid race (as I had during Wendover Woods 50 in November). I managed a decent time (for me anyway) on a hilly course without having run many hills in training so far this year. And I gained some welcome confidence in my running ability 10 weeks out from the TP100.

Most importantly, I ran 16 miles over the two days following the race and felt strong. The Grand Slam attempt is on!