Thursday, 8 March 2012

Thames Path 100 race report

Less than 4 weeks after entering this race I was standing on the start line of the Thames Path 100. A point to point race from Richmond, London to Oxford entirely along the River Thames that snakes its way West of London. This marked the first of four 100s in 2012 in the Centurion Running Grand Slam. Goals for the race were: 1 – finish no matter what; 2 – finish in under 24hrs; 3 – finish in a PB (sub 22:51.30); 4 – Sub 22hrs; 5 – even pacing; 6 - enjoy it no matter what!

My longest training run for this race was just 21 miles (3hrs 30m on my feet). And my longest run since last August when I completed the NDW100 was SNOD marathon in October. This was therefore somewhat of an experiment to see whether my body and mind could handle the distance and time on my feet. In short would I survive? The weather forecast for the weekend was not good. Rain showers were forecast on Saturday with the worst to come on the Sunday. The temperature was also due to drop to 3 degrees at night so warm clothing was a must. With a 30hr cut off and a 10am start on the Saturday folks could be out until up to 4pm on Sunday. Ouch!

I arrived nice and early and caught up with a few familiar faces – Dino Ilari and Jerry aka Ultra Kent. A bit of chat passed the time with the hot topic being shoe selection! I still couldn’t decide what shoes to opt for – roadies or trails, and had brought both. With the gloomy weather forecast and prospect of slippery muddy trails I went with the Montrails in the end. I think this turned out to be the right decision. A quick race briefing from James Elson (Race Director) and we were all set.

A count down from 10 – 9 – 8 – 7 ….. 1 …go and we were on our way. I unintentionally positioned myself near the front of the start (see video clip – I’m centre shot in the fluorescent yellow T). I didn’t get carried away however and set off at a very conservative pace as I let many overtake me in the early miles. The forecast rain arrived on cue literately less than a mile after the start and I got ready for a very wet next 24hrs. However the showers only lasted an hour or two as things soon brightened up very nicely. The first section between Richmond and Walton upon Thames was the longest of the entire route at 12 miles, and thankfully so. Anything this length later on would have been a real killer.

I arrived at CP1 at exactly midday. The maths was easy – 12 miles in 2 hours… erm… yes an average pace of 10mpm! Oops quite quick but it was impossible to run any slower than this without walking especially on such a flat course. There was a good crowd at the aid station all cheering and clapping the runners in (this continued at every aid station throughout). I grabbed a few handfuls of nuts, dried fruit, crisps and some mars bar, filled my hand held water bottle popping in a nuun tablet for electrolyte replacement, removed my long sleeved top from underneath my T and set off on the next 10 mile section to Wraysbury.
The 10 mpm pace felt very comfortable so I didn’t consciously try to slow down. I really don’t remember much of this next section as they were all a bit undistinguishable from one another. The terrain on the Thames Path generally consisted of a variety of either; gravel/concrete paths, hard packed trails, open fields, and farm tracks. There were some but very few technical woodland trails and some road sections too. I think it was in this section that a few runners went the wrong way deciding to stick to the Thames when the race route and arrows actually took us off the river and along a main road. Me and another chap checked that the arrow wasn’t tampered with (it hadn’t been) and we continued on eventually coming to CP2 (Wraysbury) still on 10 mpm pace. Bottled filled, nuun tablet in and off I went. No drama and very early days in the grand scheme of things even though at 22 miles it was already my longest run since August 2011 (barring SNOD).

I can’t recall any detail of the next section between Wraysbury and Windsor as the marathon distance came and went uneventfully. What I can remember though (and seems to be the highlights of my race is what I ate at the next checkpoint). I reached CP3 Windsor (28 miles) in good spirits which was the first drop bag point on the route. I had a chocolate ‘For Goodness Shakes’, pizza and flapjack from my drop bag, plus a nice cuppa and some coke! Perfect fuel for the next 10 mile section up to the 38 mile point.

The next section to Cookham included a major diversion off the Thames Path and around Dorney Lake which is an Olympic venue so I’m led to believe. There was much confusion here amongst a group of us who had all slowed and come together to agree what was the right way. The problem was that the diversion arrows we had started follow off the Thames Path had disappeared and no one was sure on what was the right way. Dorney Lake was frigging massive and we really didn’t fancy the prospect of running around it and adding unnecessary mileage which can be very demoralising. The closed Thames Path was to our left with an 8ft high security fence and low barbed wire fence beyond that. I spotted a gap in the security fence ahead and suggested that the easiest and shortest course of action (and least likely to get us lost!) would be to get back on the Thames Path ASAP (it was closed but from what we could tell later only for minor resurfacing works). A few of the others followed as I went through the gap in the security fence hopped over the barbed wire fence and continued on my way. For the next 2-3 miles or so though I was never certain whether the gamble was the right one due to the lack of Centurion Running arrows or red/white striped tape that marked the route from start to finish.

Was I even on the Thames? The rowing teams training on the river was a hint but I doubted everything. Eventually though the glorious sight of red/white tape returned. My gamble had well and truly paid off and I saved myself a good mile or two detour around the rowing lake.

My dad was waiting at CP4 Cookham which was a nice surprise. I told him how well it seemed to be going, and whilst the 10mpm pace had now slipped I was still in control and moving strong. I had a cup of tea checked in with my wife, said my goodbyes and was off. I had a good next section to CP5 (44 miles) maintaining an 10:30 mpm average pace. I got chatting to a guy Nick Lewis who I knew I recognised from somewhere. Turns out we both ran the Wiggle 12hr race in 2010. Nick was good company and we ran together for some of this section. At CP5 where my dad was again in support I didn’t stick around too long said goodbye and set off with Nick who I could tell had a good pace which would keep me going strong. The first 44 miles of this race had absolutely flown by and I was feeling good, and actually looking forward to the night section which would be twice as long as the day!

Nick, David (aka Mr Immune) and a German bloke Andreas who had travelled over just for the race and was good company, plus a couple of others ran together in the next 7 mile section to the half way point at Henley (51 miles). Having company definitely makes the miles go faster. As it got darker the head lights came out. I relied just on the Exposure Spark hand torch for this section as I didn’t want to bother getting out the Petzl head torch from my bag which would waste precious minutes. The final few miles into Henley was along a very straight hard surfaced section besides the river. Our pace now would have further slowed to 11 mpm probably [it will be interesting to see the race splits which aren’t out on the website yet but will be soon to see if my perceived pace was accurate!?].

CP6 at Henley (51 miles) was the main night aid station (at least on our pace) where we would gear up for the night, but not before refuelling first! They were serving up hot beans and hot dogs :-D I had two portions of that, plus a recovery shake, rice pudding, coke and two cups of tea. This right here is why I love Ultras!!  I feel really sorry for the faster guys and girls who don’t even have the time to pig out properly. It’s all part of it and very necessary to keep the energy levels up. I got the hydration and nutrition spot on for this race which was something I was very pleased about. No repeats of that ‘running on empty’ feeling that I had at NDW for the entire night section and puking up on iron-bru and ham and jam sandwiches!

Night gear on (long sleeved top, Montane water & wind proof lite jacket and gloves) and I was set. Earlier on Nick had asked me whether I wanted to buddy up for the night section. I heartedly accepted and was very grateful of such an offer as I wasn’t too keen to tackle the night section alone. Nick and I set off in what felt like the deep dark night even though it was only about 7:30pm. 51 miles down and because of some dodgy maths by James Elson ;-) there was easily still 51 miles to go if not more! So this was only half way…. it was gonna be a long night. My memory of the night section is even worst than the day. I’m sure that when the body goes into survival mode that it shuts down all non-critical functions like memory! At least for me anyway.

The sections between Henley to Reading (CP7 - 58 miles) and Whitchurch (CP8 – 67 miles) were a mix of open fields, urban life and woodland trails as we continued to chip away at the miles. Good conversation makes a huge difference and whilst I was of course fatigued by now with our pace slowed to 12 mpm my body and mind continued to do everything that I asked of it. CP8 was a flying visit with Nick sticking to strict in and out quick policy. I would have stayed longer had a cup of tea and wasted time. But as the saying goes if you aren’t moving forward you aren’t getting closer to the finish. The next section was only 4 miles to Streatley but it was the hilliest section of the entire route with some very short but steep sharp climbs and descents. This worked the quads well but we took it easy and power hiked them.

CP9 at Streatley (71 miles) was a hot food stop and drop bag point and inside a nice warm hall. SO LUSH! All the ingredients for a longer than planned stop but well earned. We took our time as we were entering the toughest part of the race now. It was around midnight and there was still another 6 hours of darkness and many slow miles ahead. More beans, hot dogs, pizza, creamed rice and recovery shake later and I was set  How I didn’t puke I don’t know but I could run (slowly) on a full stomach without any issues. The next section to Benson was advertised as 8 miles (71 to 79 miles) but thanks to a soul destroying diversion off the TP and along a main road it was nearer 10 in my opinion. It went on forever! Nick was still running strong and opened a gap as I slumped to a slow plod cursing the road ahead. I walked the final mile or so into the aid station (CP10 Benson). Seeing Nick had already left the CP when I arrived though gave me a massive kick up the arse and was exactly what I needed. I refilled the handheld and flew outta there to catch Nick.

I caught him after less than a mile or so as well as passing a few another runner on route. Nick said that we should run how we feel at this point in the race rather than adjusting our pace to suit somebody else. I was in two minds though whether there was any benefit in me shooting off in front, but my adrenaline was firing now from my new found speed (this is all relative of course!) so I promptly carried on at the same pace that I had done to catch him. At this moment I distinctly remember thinking and feeling that I could maintain this pace to the finish (what the hell was I thinking!). I felt fresh and passed another 4 people on route to the next CP, but this feeling was short lived. Looking back I think (actually I know) that I made a big mistake in blasting this section which affected the rest of my race.

Upon getting to CP11 at Little Wittenham (83 miles) Nick wasn’t actually far behind me. This came as a bit of a surprise because for the effort I put in I thought I had opened up a much bigger gap. The next mistake I made was to spend too little time at this aid station and not refuel properly. I even left my handheld water bottle behind in my rush to keep going with just a cup of tea in hand. Anthony Low (volunteer marshall) and from local town Dunstable ran after me and reunited me with my bottle. Phew… thanks Anthony.

Everything that you have read up to this point is where I consider my race had gone perfectly to plan. We were maintaining a 12 mpm average pace and had 83 miles in the bag. And I still thought we could possibly finish around the 20 hour mark (6am finish… perhaps 21hrs). How wrong was I!! From this point on my ‘run’ was over and in the next 8 mile section the wheels completely fell off. Nick soon caught up with me out of CP11 and I didn’t hang on to him for very long. This section should only have taken around 2 hours max to complete. It took me over 3 FRIGGIN’ HOURS!! 20 mpm pace on a pancake flat straight trail!! How on God’s earth it took me that long remains a mystery. All I know is that I couldn’t focus or run/walk in a straight line. I weaved from one side of the trail to the other like a drunken reveller on a Saturday night. It was a crash of immense proportions and all I could do was hang on for the ride and carry on and get to CP12 in whatever time it would take me. I was a mess…

I arrived at CP12 Abingdon (91 miles) as it was getting light. In just one section my race had gone from perfect to disaster. Of course this wasn’t actually the case but in my mind at that point it had. It was just one bad section. I slumped down in the nearest chair in Abingdon Cricket Club Pavilion and licked my wounds. More beans, hot dog, and another recovery shake from my drop bag perked me up a little. David (Mr Immune) walked in shortly after I did and will testify how crap and miserable I must have looked! I wish I could have been that happy person always full of joy and smiles and celebrating the last 91 miles however I wasn’t. The last 91 miles were irreverent at that point. All I could think about was the last 9 miles. How long would it take me? After the last section anything was possible. 4 hours… perhaps even 5!! Who knows…

I did however leave Abingdon with renewed vigour and whilst the spring in my step wasn’t back it wasn’t completely uncoiled. The sun was rising and I felt better about things. Perhaps it was the hot dogs! The footing in the next 4 mile section was awful though. The rain had now been steadily falling for the past few hours and it was extremely slippery. Even the Montrails weren’t finding any grip. By this point I had done the maths though and barring absolute catastrophe I would finish in sub 24 hours, and I actually had a good shot at a 100 mile PB.

I slipped and slided my way to the final checkpoint at 95 miles (Lower Radley) which was a very brisk affair. No need to refuel now just a quick refill and I was off to the generous applause of the volunteers. The reaction of all the volunteers at every aid station was the same and made for such an uplifting experience. It was now just a matter of not if, but when would I finish. My mood had improved but not my speed, however I set off with one goal in mind which was to earn my second 100 miles one day Centurion Running belt buckle! That was why I was here and nothing was going to stop me now especially not a measly 5 miles. Accept this final 5 mile section turned out to be another one of James’ mathematical mysterys of distance and time. Where was the frigging finish!? With 5 miles gone Oxford was no where in sight as green fields lined both sides of the Thames with the rowing clubs out for their Sunday morning training sessions on the river. They too got wind of what we were doing and where we had run from as we were greeted with nods and smiles of approval and a few cheers and ‘well done keeping going’ (I certainly intended to thank you). I caught two runners in front of me who had stopped as they too didn’t think it could be any further (so it wasn’t just me) and thought we might have missed a turn off. A local soon confirmed however that Oxford was indeed a few miles ahead.

Eventually though after another 20 or so minutes of plodding and walking up stream the pub ‘Head of the River’ that marked the final mile came into sight. I usually finish any race with a good spurt at the finish no matter what the distance but this time was different. The last 15 miles had really ground me down, it was still raining hard and my feelings were only of utter relief as I plodding up to the finish line. Glyn Rayman from Leighton Fun Runners (local club) was the first to greet and congratulate me. Glyn had volunteered to man the finish aid station and was running around making cups of tea for cold tired runners all day which he remarked was harder than running 100 miles. Thanks Glyn!

James Elson (the ‘Man’!) was there sheltering in the tiny finish tent with the 100 Miles One Day belt buckle in hand which I gratefully accepted. He acknowledged and recognised just how hard this had been for me, reflected in my slower than anticipated finish time that he (and I) thought I might be capable of. Nevertheless 22hrs and 41mins was still a PB (finishing in 42nd place out of 126 finishers from the 191 runners that started. I am extremely pleased with this result, especially on the lack of specific training I had done for this race which amounted to just 3 weeks of back to back weekend long runs with the longest single run being just 21 miles.

James also commented that I had earned my second one day buckle in a row with a nod towards the challenge ahead in 2012 which is to compete in and complete a further three Centurion 100 mile events between now and November (SDW100, NDW100, & Winter 100) and in doing so complete the Grand Slam. This is my goal for the year and this was just the first step towards that goal.
I’m looking forward to putting together a consistent period of training between now and June to get to the start line of the South Down Way 100 tip top and more able to compete in and ‘run’ 100 miles from start to finish. As apposed to running 80 miles and imploding!! I have more to reflect on in this race, lessoned learned, and how and why it panned out the way it did which I will post separately to this report once I have had a little more time for reflection.

Full TP100 race results are here.

A final note on this race is that things took a turn for the worst by mid morning on Sunday weather wise as the rain got harder, with sleet and snow, winds picked up and temps fell to below freezing. As a consequence James had to make the impossibly hard decision to pull everyone still out on the course to safety and abandon the race after 26 hours. James’ own blog post with a full account of what unfolded is here. And as a final final note I would like to say thanks to all the volunteers whom without, races like this just wouldn’t be possible. A special thanks to Nick Lewis too for the company and superb pacing throughout the night. It was a real pleasure mate.


  1. Way to go on your 100 mile PR, Disco Stu!! Loved your report!

    All Day!

  2. Good run Stu. Good early pace got you that PB and spared you the worst of the weather by the sound of it. Only one really bad section, but your right at the time when your tired and emotional it can be a killer and almost feel like its ruined all the good bits before. Well done for pushing on and keep up the good work for the other 300 this year!