My curiosity was first tickled about running an ultra-marathon (anything longer than a marathon) a few years back after an ex-work colleague completed The Spine Race, a 268 miles non-stop and largely self- supported race along the Pennine Way in January. He recommended Centurion Running, who have well marked courses with minimal need for navigation and a reputation for great aid stations. Then in early 2017, I was sat propped up against a bar in Edinburgh having watched Mo Farah run an international cross country, when I noticed a guy in funky hoody which turned out to be from Jedburgh Three Peaks ultra. Shortly after I bought the top, but felt a fraud wearing it without having run it, so I entered and ran it later that year off the back of marathon training to earn it. It’s a 38 mile out and back route on the borders of Scotland that doesn’t involve navigation. It’s mostly trail, with the equivalent of a fell race across 3 hills, the Eildons, at mile 20 and a playground and slides to traverse immediately afterwards-great fun!
After completing my first ultra-marathon, Jedburgh Three Peaks in late 2017, I was cautiously considering entering a 100 miler. For a 100 miler, there is usually a qualifying shorter distance ultra. Centurion Running stipulate you need to have completed a minimum of 50 miles within a specified cut-off time to run one of their 100-mile races. The Thames Path 100 particularly caught my eye as I live within walking distance of the start, it’s relatively flat and the route finishes in Oxford where I used to live for 15 years. Before I ran my first 50 miler, I volunteered at last year’s TP100, which not only gave me a free place in this year’s TP100, it gave me the opportunity to get lots of tips from lots of very experienced ultra-runners who were either volunteering and running. The general gist was that although TP100 was flat, it wasn’t necessarily easier than a hilly 100 and was relentless (they weren’t wrong there!) In autumn 2018, although feeling under par on the day, I managed to get round my qualifier, Chiltern Wonderland 50 and had my first experience of blisters under toe nails- I think repeatedly stubbing my toes was a factor as I don’t tend to suffer from blisters during marathons.
It felt a bit nerve racking confessing that I was planning on doing a 100 miler. Most people’s reactions were along the lines that it was crazy or bonkers and why didn’t I just drive there. In the end, it was a little bit touch and go whether I was going to make the start line of TP100. I felt woefully undertrained with only had 12 weeks to train for the Manchester Marathon and after getting my mileage up, I had to cut back a lot, as my exercise tolerance was so low due to having low iron and a few other issues. And I’d also managed to pick up a calf strain running Manchester a month before. Manchester done with a satisfying Boston qualifier and London & Chicago GFA time, it was straight off to Boston for Kevin’s marathon. I learned on my return that my 100 year old nan passed away while Kevin was toeing the start line, which made me resolve to dedicate each mile of the TP100 to a year of her life-although it did end up being 104 miles in the end!
The race registration and the start were in Richmond by the Old Townhall and Kevin and another friend came down to see me off. It was a pretty relaxed start and after a briefing from the RD, James Elson (who made a Barkley Marathons attempt a few months before) I ambled off towards the back. The weather was unseasonably cold and pretty blowy, with sunshine interspersed with heavy showers-not too bad! The first few miles I was chugging along at a very easy pace, on my usual long run route up to Hampton Court and Walton on Thames at the first checkpoint, which was familiar from the Thames Half. Then near Windsor Castle, I met Kevin for the 1st time for a quick hug before continuing on and making steady ploddy progress.
At the Cookham checkpoint/38 miles I saw Kevin again and took my first longer stop as my left big toe felt sore. Removing my socks revealed a large blister and had no real choice but to lance it, if I was to continue. I then made a messy attempt to bandage it, which amused the medics no end! After circa 25 minutes faffing, I left only to have to put my rain jacket back on for a squally hail shower. I continued my ploddy progress, now feeling better and over taking quite a few people who were now walking. It was sunset when I arrived at the Henley check point (supposedly at 51 miles, but I made it 54 miles) in 11 hours, including all the fannying about, so I was on schedule for under 24 hours.
At Henley I had a lengthy, but necessary fanny about lancing and dressing another large blister on the other big toe, changed all my upper clothing, socks and trainers for the night, ate some food, went to the toilet again, and gave Kevin a big hug before setting off into the night. This time making progress was slower and more difficult as I must have stiffened up a bit. I was starting to get more into a pain cave, with painful ankles, knees and muscle soreness. On meeting Kevin at Reading/58 miles I was getting concerned that I would risk missing the cut off time if I continued walking so much. I said goodbye and wasn’t expecting to see him until the Abingdon/91 mile checkpoint. I really enjoy running at night and it was a lovely clear and beautiful night, but very cold. Unfortunately, I continued walking a lot and it took longer and longer to get to the next check point. There were stretches on road, but lots on hard lumpy, uneven ground with the odd tree root to catch you out! Approaching Streatley, I startled a cute muntjac deer in front of me at one point.
At the Streatley checkpoint/71 miles I picked up a small drop bag of treats and had a small cup of tomato soup. Then back into the night, which was now very wintry with a heavy frost and frozen fog around the Chilterns combined a couple of hills and the dry, hard lumpy rooty uneven ground, which was uncomfortable, hard going. It started to get light and it was beautiful travelling along in the freezing mist by the river, although I was getting cold. At 77m around a beautiful misty sunrise, I had the most fantastic surprise, when Kevin sprinted towards me. He knew I was worried about my progress and didn’t get much sleep worrying too, so decided to come out and meet me! We walked to the checkpoint at Wallingford where a very kind lady filled up my mug with tea and helped me rearrange my clothing and put on my spare top to help warm me up. There were quite a few people who had under estimated the cold who dropped out here. This checkpoint was decision time for me and I did a few fuzzy calculations and knew I needed to increase my pace to a minimum walk/trot to make the cut off as I was now only within one hour of the checkpoint cut off! Fortunately, with a combination of feeling warmer and the sun’s warm rays, I was able to increase the ratio of lumbering to walking, apart from the areas where the ground got more difficult. Still, quite a few people were passing me, although most were accompanied by pacers, which you are allowed from Henley at the halfway point.
The next stretch seemed to drag on for ages and ages, again on very hard uneven ground through pastures with cows and only a flimsy fence between the path and a bull. Kevin met me at 85m/Clifton Hampden checkpoint, where I had a shorter faff with a toilet stop and drinks refill. I then pressed on to Abingdon/91m, where Kevin pointed out that fellow Eagle, Emily Schmidt, was volunteering. Unfortunately, time was getting very tight and I had to press on and didn't have time to chat. Kevin then paced me for the remaining 9 miles to the finish in 27 hours 25mins, only 35 mins before the cut off. Crossing through the blue arch, I was presented with my finisher T shirt and buckle, gave Kevin a huge hug and, in age old tradition, I cracked open a celebratory beer, watching the remaining runners finish. I was so glad Kevin was able to share that last part of the journey and finish. I then made the mistake of sitting down and immediately everything started to seize up and it was difficult to hobble the short distance to my friends place on Folly Bridge Island, where a nice hot bath was waiting. I so exhausted that I just fell straight asleep in the bath!
A lot of folks suffered similarly and guess 100 miles is never going to be easy and the 27% drop out attests to that, although better than the 42% drop out last year when it was very warm. I was lucky in that I seemed to have bypassed the crashing lows that I have read about. My toes were a mess, with a huge blister covering almost the entire top of my big toe. My ankles and feet were so painful and swollen, that I visited the outpatients immediately on my return to London, where another very kind lady confirmed it was tendonitis (ie an over-use injury) and deroofed and dressed my blisters properly, so they didn’t get infected.
I’m ecstatic at finishing, but it would have been difficult without Kevin's support and the wonderful Centurion volunteers with their kind and wise words. I'd like to think my nan was with me through the adventure and I thought of her a lot, both in the many beautiful moments and when it got tough.
Tips if you’re bonkers enough to think about doing a 100 miler
Set plenty of time aside for recovery- don’t underestimate the after effects. Book at least one day off work, but it and may be worth keeping your diary free or booking longer or working from home in case you need it, especially if you don’t have a desk job as there is such a high injury rate. I had a bank holiday and worked from home for the following 3 days.
Make sure you take a 1st aid kit for blisters and other common injuries.
Allow for additional sleep and lots of rest in the days afterwards. I’m still feeling tired 10 days afterwards finishing writing this!
DOMS/muscle soreness-found this isn’t as bad as a for a marathon-guess I probably managed to walk out most of the lactic acid. However, over-use injuries are pretty common.
Training-practice running being tired by doing back to back long runs. I did this on the back of very cut back marathon training. Ideally best to do more than one 50 miler and ideally something longer as there is a huge leap going from 50 to 100 miles.
A hundred miles is generally going to involve running through the night. Get used to running at night and also make sure that you allow for big changes in temperature and a slower pace by taking spare clothing. Invest in a decent headtorch from the start.
Crews-family and friends can often meet you to give you food, drink and encouragement, in addition to that provided at checkpoints. It’s great to see a friendly familiar face!
Pacers-many longer ultras allow you to have a pacer at the later stages. Having some company through the night and the tough later stages to encourage you to keep moving, eating & drinking and generally chatting to you can help enormously in the latter stages. I was originally not intending to have a pacer, but found it helped a lot for those last 9 miles.
Checkpoints-ignore the commonly quoted “beware the chair” at your peril! Try and minimise time at checkpoints and don’t sit down (unless absolutely necessary). You can grab a few snacks to eat enroute to the next checkpoint. I probably would have knocked an hour an a half off if I had been more efficient at checkpoints.