Autumn 100 – Mind over matter  

2016 started so well with a half marathon PB in the build up to the London Marathon.  Then the shin/knee issue reared its ugly head and so began a frustrating 6 months on the running front. My grand plan for 2016 of a sub-4 hour London Marathon + sub-10 hour North Downs Way 50 + sub-24 hour Autumn 100 slipped from my grasp.

Then again, 4:19-DNS-27:21 has quite a ring to it… 

What the heck! I finished my second 100 mile race. Get in!!

[Photo: Stuart March]

Helping out

October 2015. North Stoke. Leg 2 of the Autumn 100. I’m running the aid station and absolutely loving this race. So much so that I head over to the village hall at Goring to help out for another hour or so before I head home, knowing full well that I’ll be lining up at the start a year later for my second 100 mile race. I wasn’t to know that my journey to the race over the next 12 months would be more eventful than expected. 

Bouncing back 
After missing my sub-4 hour target but getting a new PB at the London Marathon in April and deciding not to start (DNS) the North Downs Way 50 I neeeed to get my running back on track over the Summer. Cue a gradual return to running and lots and lots of easy paced trail runs around my local woods during Summer evenings, a few long(ish) training runs and, thankfully, an easing of my shin/knee issues. It was all going so well that I agreed to my running buddy Phil Hall’s suggesting that we run the 50k Salisbury 54321 trail race together in mid-August. While I can’t recommend that race enough – it was a glorious, warm and sunny day and the race circumnavigates Salisbury with absolutely beautiful countryside views – I struggled with stomach issues in the first half of the race and struggled to run with a hip issue in the second half. 8 weeks before Autumn 100 I began to wonder if DNS number 2 of the year was waiting for me. After a couple of days of foam rolling and mobility work on the hip with a lacrosse ball I was relieved to find that I could run pain free, something I managed to do thereafter until race day. Over the next few weeks I kept my weekly mileage relatively low, preferring to get to the start line undertrained rather than injured.

Getting ready

After several months where I doubted my ability to complete the Autumn 100 – the sub-24 hour goal having long since disappeared – I regained my self belief a couple of weeks before race day. I was calm and composed about it, then over excited in the week leading up to race day. Apologies to everyone in the Centurion Running Community Facebook group for my incessant posts in the final week! 

Registration and the start

Simon Welch, local running buddy and pacer for Leg 1, saved the day and gave me a lift to the start on race morning. On the journey I was calm and looking forward to the race. However, as soon as I sent foot in Goring Village Hall the nerves started to kick in. Louise Ayling checked my kit and I then registered. After a few minutes of last minute preparation (mainly of the feet) and the inevitable toilet trip I was ready to head over to the start. It was, as always at Centurion events, great to see so many familiar faces and have a quick catch up with the likes of Stewart Liesnham and soon to be Grand Slammer and fellow #MIBUltraTeam member Mark Thornberry. I made sure to steal a pre-race hug from the ever present and always wonderful Nici Griffin before heading over to the start, trying to ease my nerves. A little banter with Bryan Webster, Matt Bevan and Conrad Wild just before 10am helped. James Elson gave the pre-race briefing, accurately forecasting rain at 5pm and 7am. Where is Michael Fish when you need him?!

The race

A summary of my race recollections:

Leg 1 – Bang on target

  • Run walk strategy worked well – slightly inconsistent but generally 10-15 min run then 2 min walk 
  • Boy this section along the Thames Path is flat – ooh, a hill (bridge!)
  • Remembered to eat little and often
  • Strange stomach – not sick, tight and feeling like running too empty
  • Tried to delay joining the Coke sugar train too early – lasted to the turnaround point
  • Making sure I ran my own race and didn’t get swept away at the start, soon settling into a comfortable pace
  • Ran a while with Grand Slammer in the making Tracey Watson
  • First opportunity to see runners heading back the other way, exchanging many a high five and smile
  • Being asked by Emma Lewis if I was still as exited as a kid at Christmas or if I’d calmed down yet (I had)
  • Walking with Grand Slammer Tim Cox on the approach to Goring only to find out that it looked like his race was over was really sad (I was delighted to find out later that he had rallied and finished)
  • Still smiling as I returned to Goring in 4h51m (target was 5 hours) to be greeted with a hug by Sarah Sawyer

[Photo: Simon Welch]

Confession: I spent too long faffing about in Goring – Vaseline on toes, Sudocrem, kit

Leg 2 – Mind the roots

  • Caught up with Phil Bradburn as we ran the first few miles together
  • I’d been told this is the most enjoyable and beautiful leg of the race – and they were right
  • Single track trails are great fun but with this many miles in the legs I was worried about tripping up
  • Boy this leg is hilly
  • Grim’s Ditch is wonderful, technical running country
  • Too much hiking, not enough running as it got darker and I worried about tripping over tree roots
  • Having a full on cramp innit right calf at mile 38 and dropping to the ground screaming is not a good look
  • Panic about cramp ending your face then breathe, massage the muscle and walk on before breaking into a gentle run
  • Finding your way across the golf course in the dark is easier when you can see the footprints of the majority of the runners leading the way
  • Stomach settled down thankfully 
  • Sucking on a sherbet lemon during an ultra is ace
  • North Stoke aid station is a welcome sight in the return leg, as was Alma Boates
  • Aaron Oliver, Mike Hogan and Conrad Wild all passed me looking strong in their  100 mile debut race
  • Great to meet runners you know through social media at last, like Justin Bateman
  • Dave Stuart smiles even more than me – well, he should do on his way to another sub-24 hour finish and the Grand Slam 
  • It rained a fair bit but not too heavily and early adoption of the waterproof jacket was a good move

Leg 2 done, I was greeted by David Barker as I headed back into Goring Village Hall in a new 50 mile PB of 11h44m. Things were going roughly to plan. Now if I could just get in and out of Goring quick smart….. Whoops. Despite my Leg 3 pacer Ashley Hurd’s best efforts I was a little slow in getting my arse back out on the trails. I was still smiling. More Vaseline and Sudocrem, a change of t-shirt, additional fleece layer, another t-shirt and waterproof jacket in the pack. I enjoyed a cup of hot baked beans, an M&S Iced n Spiced bun (truly amazing ultra food) and some fruit before heading off with a doggy bag of pork pie and grapes, topped off by some Percy Pigs specially delivered by Sharon Dickson. Ash led the way as we went back up towards the Ridgeway.

[Photo: Ashley Hurd]

Leg 3 – How long is this hill climb?

  • Boy this is a long 6.5 miles climb to the aid station – when it turned out to be 8.5 miles I was relieved
  • It’s great having someone else take the mental calculations away from you so you can focus on moving forward 
  • Running well when I broke into a trot in between purposeful hiking
  • Food running low at the aid stations as I’m towards the back of the pack but those M&S chocolate biscuits – wow!
  • Let’s run to that tree turns into running into the third, fourth or fifth one if you just keep at it
  • Having a pacer with you is reassuring at the point that you are running downhill and trip over your own feet before flying through the air and landing on the right hand side of your head
  • Once you’ve fallen it’s important to get back on the horse and run again, albeit with more concentration and focus, to keep eating into the distance
  • It gets chilly on the Ridgeway and 3 layers and a waterproof jacket kept the chill off just enough

[Photo: Ashley Hurd – pre-flight]

Ash got me back to Goring at mile 75 in 19h56m. Including pit stop time, which was quicker this time , this gave me just over 8 hours to do the final 25 miles. Surely I could do a marathon in 8 hours? Dan Park was sweeping Leg 4 and much as I like Dan there was no way I was going to let him catch me. Now was the time for Rodrigo Freeman to help me bring it home. He’d have to wait a few minutes though as I munched my way through Iced n Soiced bun number 2 on the way out of the aid station

[Photo: Ashley Hurd/Dan Park – Ash, me and Rod at the mile 75 pacer changeover point]

Leg 4 – To the end of the fence, sorry, the next gate

  • Start as you mean to go on – Rod making me run from the start, with walking breaks to ensure we stayed within the cut offs 
  • I tripped over tree roots and fell twice in the first few minutes, landing on my right shoulder and left hip in quick succession
  • 12/13 hours of darkness sucks
  • Heavy rain on and off from 7am for the next few hours wasn’t that bad as at least it was light again now
  • I really, really don’t like those fields when the ground is wet and slippery after 75+ miles in the legs
  • When Rod tells you to run to the end of the fence you soon realise it’ll change – and that you can keep going
  • Still running fairly strongly (relatively speaking) when we break into a trot and hiking with purpose
  • That “Welcome to Reading” sign means there’s miles still to go until the turnaround point 
  • Bloody steps and stairs – actually, they weren’t as bad as I had feared
  • Having 3.5 hours to do the last 13 miles seems easy but as fatigue sits in and the pace slows it’s not
  • I really, really need to get myself some gaiters as I lost a fair chunk of time here and throughout the race stopping to remove stones from my running shoes
  • Gingerly making your way along muddy, slippery riverside trails with over 95 miles in your legs is interesting
  • Rod really is competitive and I have to admit it was quite fun being pushed in the last couple of miles to overtake runners and gain a few finishing positions 

The finish

And so. The end is near. As I finished the race by running the final climb up from the Thames Path back into Goring Village Hall for the final time I could feel myself on the verge of tears.  I was welling up. As I approached the timers I let out a “Come on!” style roar and it was over. Despite a frustrating year and less than ideal training I had done it. I had finished my second 100 mile race in 27h21m, a 59 minute PB and comfortably within the 28 hour cut off. Sheer and utter relief. I saved the tears for the train journey home, when I suddenly became overwhelmed by what I had achieved.

Ninja like climbing up through the field or benefitting from a 27% DNF rate? You decide:

That really, really precious second buckle:

[Photo: Me!]

Special thanks to all of the volunteers for their support and encouragement. To my pacers, Ash and Rod, thank you so much for keeping me moving and helping me to get that buckle. And thanks yet again to James Elson, Nici Griffin and all of the team at Centurion Running for continuing to put on top class trail races for runners of all abilities.

I’m sure I’ve forgotten to mention several people I met and bantered with during race weekend. Thank you all for making my race such a great experience. 

The aftermath
I’ll be back stronger and better in 2017. What the Autumn 100 proved to me is that I really am mentally strong enough to do well at this distance. If I can avoid injury, train consistently and run more of each race – as well as being much more ruthless with my aid station stops – then maybe, just maybe, I have a sub-24 hour 100 mile finish in me. There’s only one way to find out. See you at one or more Centurion 100 mile races in 2017, after a little downtime to refresh, reflect and drink Guinness to replenish my iron stores.