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.

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