Time 14 hrs 55mins
Calories burned: ~5235
Beers earned: Countless
Money raised: £934 (Cancer Research UK)
Strava link: https://strava.app.link/14Y2Vx7f15
I told myself I’d wait until I’d forgotten how much it hurt before writing a race report. That way, I’d be able to objectively pick out the true highs and lows. Granted, it did take a while for the legs to recover but not the 6 months it has taken me to write this report. All the same, it was such an amazing experience, the highs and lows will stay with me for a long time to come.
Although the event itself was on Saturday 7th September, we checked in the evening before which was great. Having race numbers and bag check labels the night before just helped to get sorted and know that you’ll turn up on the day having sorted everything without rushing in the dark on the morning of the race. My paranoia that I’ve forgotten something and my OCD appreciated this. The start area, in Bishop’s Park near Putney Bridge, was as superbly organised on the morning of the race as it was for registration the night before.
This will be a common occurrence that I praise the organisation and team from Ultra Challenge as they made the whole experience for us. I ran the race with my brother-in-law Jamie, whose company was crucial to keep me going. Our race start was at 6:50am, the earliest start time (in waves up to 9:15), giving us more chance of actually completing it in the light. You’ll laugh at that later.
After getting to the start area at around 6 ish, in the dark, we had a wee, banana and coffee, all of which were free, the wee obviously. After a nervous wait and several friendly discussions with other like minded runners, all of whom, like us, were pretending we were looking forward to it. I say that only partly in jest as I was excited to get on with it. I don’t think you could ever line up for a 100km race and be totally happy it’s all going to go as planned. Therefore, if I’m honest, partly driven by the promise of pastries at the first checkpoint at 14km, we just wanted to crack on.
The race kicked off on time for us at 6:50 then all 300 or so in our wave jogged merrily out to Putney Bridge. There was quite an anticlimactic lull as we all tried to get up the steps to cross the Thames for the first in about 2.5million crossings that day. Looking back it was also amusing how everyone, including us, was trying to jostle to get some free space to push on. The version of me 80km further on would have been more than happy with a wait and a shuffle across the bridge.
Putney bridge safely navigated, we settled quickly into a comfortable plod along the south side of the Thames. The route to the first checkpoint, 14km in, was perfect to settle in. Wide, mostly firm gravel or concrete footpath along the river. We aimed to start with 6:30/km pace but running this slow so early felt more uncomfortable than if we ran at a ‘quicker’ 6:00/km. The aim of the day always being run or move in the most comfortable way meant we stuck to more like 6:00/km up to the first checkpoint. Yet again, the End-of-Race Tom would find it hilarious that 6:30/km pace seemed too slow.
Checkpoint 1 after 14km did have the promised pastries and it was very welcome. After a 5:00am porridge pot was forced down in the hotel room, I was ready for more breakfast. It’s fairly well known, however, that being ready for more breakfast is an almost daily state for me until about lunchtime. That aside and, since we were in the first wave starters, there was an amazing range of freshly baked pastries. All very welcome, along with fruit, crisps and a smorgasbord of sweets, as well as most hot and cold drinks, if you wanted. I never felt I’d gone without at any of the checkpoints and this really was where the slightly higher race entry fee seemed to come into it’s own. Top notch aid stations all the way. Having had our tags scanned we were on our way. The tags were in the form of a lanyard which were required at every checkpoint to be scanned. At first I thought this might be a pain to keep hold of, rather than a wristband or the like, but, tucking it into my running vest (Salomon S-Lab 5), I barely noticed it.
I know what you’re thinking, this is all a bit tame, there’s no suffering yet. Don’t fear, the descent will begin shortly, I’m just keeping it positive during the parts which were most enjoyable. The section between checkpoints 1 and 2 was the epitome of just that. Continued easy footing along wide footpaths and through leafy suburbs like Kingston or Richmond. The weather was perfect, a cloudy 18C with plenty of public and out about to give a great atmosphere for running. We did run this whole section too, again keeping it as slow as was comfortable. Coming into checkpoint 2, at 28km, the legs still felt fine but I was very ready for the lunch that had been put on, when am I not, even at 10am!
This checkpoint was really set up for lunch given the later waves were a few hours later starting. On top of that, we were running rather than walking, as many were, so we hit this one early. All the same, we powered through some sandwiches, crisps and a (nother) coffee. This was an interesting sign for me, how easy I got through a lot of food, probably indicating I was doing a lot more work than I realised.
We set off at a good time, behind two girls who had a lot of support along this part of the route. Fraudulently milking their applause and support we had more of a spring in our step! We were still roughly on track with our expectations, which were decidedly vague and broad, given we had no expectations of how the day would turn out. We had therefore planned to have a couple of walking stretches before checkpoint 3 at 37km. Previous ultras included some hills or unrunnable parts which naturally lended themselves to walking, ultimately helping pacing and prolonging endurance. Given how easy the footing and terrain was here, it needed some enforced walks to make sure we lasted the full distance. Well, or we had a fighting chance of lasting at least.
The main point to note about checkpoint 3 was that it turned up about 1km before we expected which was a small win as well as the fact that it had a full pick n mix selection. Again, all was well at this point so I won’t go into too much detail. We even still looked cheerful by 40km:
The walk breaks still felt slow and the 500m of walking seemed to take ages. How this would change. I still stand by the fact that these were important. We probably should even have done more of these and for longer by this stage. By the halfway point at Runnymeade, 50km in, we were both still positive. We were very ready for yet more food
True to form, the halfway point delivered. Loudspeakers announcing everyone’s arrival and a full spread of lunch options. Without the running, it was truly a day of heavy eating indulgence. Shame the restaurants were just so far apart. At least running between them kept the appetite up. And boy did it keep the appetite up. Essentially taking on the fourth meal of the morning, there was no hesitation at wolfing down a pasta lunch with a side of cottage pie.
What really helped at the halfway mark was a full compliment of family. To have the distraction of super supportive, friendly faces who had time to take on the enormity of what we were trying to do really helped and gave us good perspective that we were actually doing pretty well. Lunch done and a change of shorts and pants and we were ready to go. It’s important to note the change of pants was not a necessity, I just thought it might freshen everything up. The second 50k was up and this is where the race really upped its game.
Almost immediately we both had our legs complaining. To be fair to them, any other time they’d run up to 50k they’d been treated to a shower and a nice meal. The latter certainly took place. Presumably they were expecting a shower next. Oh no, we said, get out there and do that again. You can understand that their first reaction was to fight back. That summed up the next part of the race really. Physically, it hurt. It would now be all about mentally negotiating with the legs and, later on, much of the rest of the body to make it to the end.
We set off with the plan of 2.5km running and 0.5km walking and it set us up pretty well. For 3km at least. After a few km our legs loosened up ok and at least came round to the idea they weren’t done for the day. My first major suffering came at about 57km. It’s hard to say exactly what caused it. I was well fed, I’d been keeping on top of water and filling my camelbak every checkpoint. I can only conclude it was my body’s way of keeping me on my toes
It’s hard to describe it really. My legs hurt obviously but they had done for a while. I’m also normally a cheerful, usually painfully optimistic guy. At 57km though, my mind had other ideas. It all unravelled after a quick bit of maths. So many things could be described in this way. As we ran through the no man’s land on our approach to Windsor I casually mentioned we only had a marathon to go. Ha, only. Given what we’d already done, that seemed reasonable. Except I simultaneously noticed that it had already been about an hour since we left the half way stage.
It wouldn’t be too long before I’d be too frazzled to work this kind of simple maths out. However, at that stage, I could still tot up that it would be at least another 5 hours of running and that would be if we maintained the current pace. This was both neither the intention nor the reality.
Cue the first major ‘holy crap’ moment. It was interesting how quickly my brain shifted gear into the territory of ‘well, this is simply the most terrible decision to have done this. At least you will be punished for your ridiculous decision for the next several hours’.
However, this was also where Jamie’s company came into its own. Having someone to chat with the whole time really helped take your mind off the pain and served as a perfect distraction. Even if the conversations revolved a lot around toilet movements, it still helped.
In fact, as quickly as the dark episode begun, the sight of Windsor approaching snapped me out of it just as quickly. This was fortunate timing since we ran through the town in Windsor amongst groups of people eating, drinking and generally having a better time than us. To be feeling positive again helped interacting with civilisation again. So much so, we even looked reasonably cheerful at the 60km mark in the centre of Windsor:
This low at 57km was really important in the long run (no pun intended). Seeing how quickly it passed and my overwhelming cheerfulness returned stuck in my mind for all future low points, of which there were many. Stick with it, stop thinking too hard, don’t work out how far you have to go, talk about the last time you pooed and it will all pass.
Another large factor was that there was a checkpoint at 62km. Although the prospect of 2km at this stage was much higher than a little 2km run from your front door, it was still a boost to know we weren’t far from the next refuel. Checkpoint 5 was as fantastically well stocked and supported as the others. We refilled our waters, stuffed more snacks in our vests and I ate my body weight in melon and crisps. This was also my first experience of another albeit small interaction with a fellow runner can do wonders for your motivation and mood.
As the race went on, the smallest exchange could make the largest difference. At CP5, there was a chap who was clearly struggling. We’d passed each other several times up to now and shared a couple of chats (another brilliant aspect of the ultra running community). Anyway, he was fed up, didn’t want a lot of food and didn’t think he could get to the end. That was a boost for us because it didn’t seem so bad for us (at that time!) but also, after a brief and inane chat with him, he grabbed a sandwich and got in his way much more cheerful. That in itself was a positive boost for us as well as him. Again, small but important and it certainly made me realise the positive impact on me these little exchanges were having. More of these please for the remainder of the race.
The next low came at around 67km. The next checkpoint wasn’t until 78km and this stretch was the longest of the entire race between checkpoints. It seemed to be the same subconscious downfall on this occasion too. The realisation that it could be the best part of 90 minutes more running on lifeless legs with the last checkpoint seemingly hours ago.
Same tactics applied this time: keep talking, stop thinking and eat another snack. We were more consistently doing 2km running and 0.5km walking by this stage and after one run walk cycle, the latest round of doom and gloom was out my system. Looking back this was by far the most interesting thing to learn from the second half of the race, how easy and rapid it was switching to and from highs and lows. If I can really start to recognise and acknowledge when the lows come, this would really help keep me ploughing on. I don’t mean that I’d need to solve the lows, more just acknowledging them and knowing it would pass was going to be key to this whole day. And look, by 70km I could even force a smile:
The checkpoint at 78km was another big one, meaning there was a lot of food available. We took on a few slices of pizza – see, I wasn’t lying about the day of heavy eating – which went down a treat. It was another point at which family had access to the route so an additional bit of support all round really helped. It was such a boost as we got more drained to have support of people who had made such an effort to be there. I distinctly remember my Dad asking whether we thought we’d get to the end. It came as a surprise and I answered an immediate yes. I’d never considered that we wouldn’t even if we crawled but even answering that question and reaffirming our self belief that we’d make it was a great psychological lift.
So, the final half marathon began. Interestingly there weren’t any further significant lows from this point onwards. Whether I was beginning to recognise them arriving or whether we had resigned ourselves to the suffering, it’s hard to tell. One conscious change was that I got a lot more out of any chance meetings.
The next and final checkpoint was at 88km so relatively not too far. We were doing more like 1km running 0.5km walking by this stage but we were progressing well and continuing moving. We came firstly across a fellow runner who was running on his own. I don’t think I could ever have imagined I’d have been able to hold a conversation for so long about the physiotherapy setup at Gillingham FC, let alone 80km into a race. However, this chat passed a good few km for us and, again, the distraction and change helped carry us through.
A final encounter before the next checkpoint was, again quite trivial, but significant to my positive mood. We were generally into open fields along the banks of the Thames now (and would be for the remainder of the race into Henley). As we passed through a gate, we met a family group who let us through before them. The conversation went as follows and pretty much carried me through to the final checkpoint:
“Where are you guys running to then?’
‘Jeez, that’s a long way. Where did you start from?’
‘Fulham, 12 hours ago’
Only when explaining what we’d done up to then to members of the public did it really sink in. It also brought it home how close we were to the end, relatively. The final checkpoint 7 came upon us just as it was getting dark, at 88km. Remember how we wanted to start early to try and improve our chances of finishing in the light. Yep, not going to happen!
One great aspect of this race was that it was for both runners and walkers. The walkers were anticipating a full weekend of walking. This meant the checkpoints would be open all weekend. Crucially this meant the cutoff times at each one were hours and hours after we reached them. Not having this pressure for our first 100km was a great help.
Well, this was little comfort at the time as we faced the usual layout of drinks, fruit, sweets, crisps and chocolate. At this point, we just wanted to finish. Although I was exhausted, I’d had enough sweets and crisps, having been ploughing through them all day and nothing seemed tempting. I was aware this would happen and aware that I still needed to have something or I’d never make it. Forcing down the (genuinely) 11th or 12th coffee of the day and stashing a load of Freddo bars which I convinced myself I’d eat in the way, we set off, under the guidance of my head torch for the final leg.
This final stage seemed to take as long as the first 88km. We were into a run 0.5km walk 0.5km routine. When I say run, I really just mean not quite walking. Remember how we struggled to run at 6:30/km pace because it seemed too slow. Haha. How we laughed and hated ourselves from earlier in the day. We actually reached an odd situation where my legs hurt too much to walk quickly but I was fine running slowly. However, Jamie was much happier walking quickly than running slowly. This unorthodox combination of running or moving styles surprisingly carried us through to the end as odd as it must have been to witness, had it been light enough!
It was about now that the race organisers thought they’d really start messing with us. At 94km they thought they’d take the route very slightly away from the river and include the only hill of any significance. At 94km! Oh, thanks for that. As it was, we walked the uphill (obviously!) but it was the downhill that really made the legs shout. Again, it wasn’t a real low point as such, we were both just in such a focused, likely slightly delirious state of needing to finish, autopilot just kicked in to keep on going. Every km marker was a focus and we went from one to the next hoping they’d eventually reach 100. This is important information for the final mind screwing.
When your entire being is looking out for and ticking off the km markers, imagine the joy of the 96km marker not being there. It sounds quite harmless now, chilling out reading this wherever you are reading it. However, when the 96km was just not appearing, it was almost exactly how I imagine the end of the world to feel like. Having said that, when the 97km marker came up what felt like another 2 hours later, the elation almost made up for it. This entire episode sums up the final stage. On edge. Small things lifted and crushed your spirits. A street light in the distance making you think Henley was on the horizon, only to find out it was a car headlight. That kind of thing. It does strange things to you 14 hours of running combined with 2 weeks’ worth of meals in a day!
OK, the final stretch. Henley did finally arrive. And I mean finally. The final ironic episode happened about 1 km before the end. Remember at the start, and you’d be forgiven for not doing since I’ve gone on for so long, it was a bit frustrating having to go slowly up the steps of Putney bridge to cross the Thames for the first time. We had to cross a similar bridge in Henley to be on the correct side for the finish at the station. Do you think my legs would let me go up the steps? Of course not. I’ve never felt as much like an infirm old man as much as on those steps. Using both hands on the railing, I got up and we ran, well didn’t walk at least, towards the finish.
We crossed the line together 14hrs 55 minutes and 100km after starting. To this day, I’ve never felt so physically and emotionally exhausted. I’d have probably cried if I could think straight enough to do so. Still, I decided the finish line champagne was exactly what I needed. I soon found out it really wasn’t exact what I needed. No, that was a chair. It didn’t matter, I was so elated, and I mean total, whole body elation, the feeling when we finished made every second of the day worthwhile.
We can ignore the fact it took as long to get into the marquee to get some food as that entire final leg. As always from the team at Ultra Challenge, the food at the finish was top notch. Burgers, burritos, salad, sandwiches and all the drinks you wanted.
All in all a fantastic experience, helped in no small part at all by the immense organisation of the event and in a huge part by Jamie carrying me through all the highs and lows. A fantastic event and one which I’d be keen to repeat, maybe next time actually finishing in the light?
The real winners here, however, are you, for making it to the end if this race report.
Also, last but not least, a huge thanks goes to the many many of you who donated so I could raise £934 for Cancer Research UK.