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.

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