One Hundred Miles. It’s a long way, it takes a long time to run and there is a lot to process, so you’ll have to bear with me as I meander my way through my A100 experience.
Let’s start with the conditions. With it being mid-October, the weather is a bit of a lottery. This event has been run in atrocious conditions, with knee deep floods and torrential rain to contend with. Fortunately for the 250-odd of us running the 2021 edition, we collectively won the weather lottery! It was raining lightly as folks arrived at Race HQ for registration but that soon stopped and by the time I crossed the start line it was brightening up nicely. Really, conditions could not have been better. Perfect.
Leg 1 – Goring – Little Wittenham – Goring
Covid kiboshed the usual mass start, so we dawdled down whenever the mood took us, so long as that was between 8:30 and 9:00. Seeing no need to lurk in the hall any longer, I bailed and walked the 7 minutes to the start, crossing the start line at 8:34. I was feeling pretty good, well prepared, and with no significant niggles. The earlier rain had made the surface of the trail a little slick, even muddy in places, but nothing my light trail shoes couldn’t cope with.
I stuck to the run/walk strategy from the start, 8 minutes easy running and two minutes walking at a decent clip. Two minutes is enough to have a bit of a break from the running, use some different muscles in a different way, enough to get some admin done, eat, faff, admire the views, that kind of thing. If the plan is to walk 20% of the time (at least! uphills are an automatic walk for me regardless of strategy), then walking fast is what you need to do, arms swinging, moving forward with purpose. This is no time for a relaxed stroll. Being long of limb, my race walking pace probably isn’t much slower than my race easy running pace. I was surprised to find that however tired I got, I was able to maintain this crisp walking pace on demand throughout the whole event.
The flattest section of the race, I made pretty good progress on this leg, even a good bit ahead of the plan. I can almost hear you wondering, ooh, has he gone off too quick? I’d allowed 5hr20 for the first leg, I was back in Goring in 4hr28. Fear not, dear reader, I was feeling strong, well within myself. I started to wonder idly if sub 22 hours might be possible but quickly shut that thought down as unhelpful at this stage! I did allow myself to imagine finishing Leg 2 in daylight which I was not expecting at all. I did not linger at Goring for very long for my first return visit, just enough time to sit for a few minutes and top up my Tailwind supplies, sort out grub for the next leg, then I was off after 8 minutes. The plan said 5, but I was in credit from the first three aid stations, so no time lost overall.
Leg 2 – Goring – Swyncombe – Goring
There’s a lot of talk about not sitting down whilst running an ultra. Crews are encouraged not to allow it, keep their runner on their feet lest they become unwilling to remove themselves from said chair. To this, I say bollocks! I was amazed at how much difference a few minutes of sit down made. I started Leg 2 feeling pretty fresh, considering, with nothing new hurting and still able to plod along at the same pace. The first aid station came along quickly, just 4.5 miles into the leg. I didn’t feel like much, and hadn’t eaten anything up to this point on this leg, still stuffed from the mobile feast on the first leg. I did eat a bit of banana, but I think that was it. Onward I went, heading for the Grim’s Ditch section, probably my favourite on the whole course. I recced this section the weekend before, reminding myself that it isn’t flat! The Ditch is gently uphill for its whole 5km length on the outward stretch. Quite runnable on fresh legs, less so on 30 mile legs. The Ditch is also home to about a zillion tree roots, every one of which is waiting to trip the unwary runner, as I found at some cost to my dignity back in April. I took it easy, running the flatter sections, walking the slopes, keeping at all times an eagle-eye out for the pesky roots.
That feeling I had of being stuffed after Leg 1 began to manifest itself as discomfort, the kind of discomfort that might require diving into the bushes. I checked out a few likely looking egress points off the ditch, but couldn’t quite bring myself to go fully wild. Never mind, I thought, there’s toilets at the Swyncombe aid station. Aren’t there?
After a few hours of sunshine, quite warm for an October day, I was taking on more fluids than I had carrying capacity for, especially on this leg as the aid stations are not as evenly spaced. Luckily the Church of England was standing by. I filled up at the tap in the graveyard of the church at Nuffield, just as you come off the Ditch.
With the trip-hazard zone dealt with, things get a bit hillier with some notable ups and downs as the route winds its way to Swyncombe. I was fine on the ups, but was finding the steeper downs a challenge, my knees protesting but mainly my toes having none of it. My shoes are too small, basically, not an adjective often applied to Size 13s. Instead of bounding down all carefree like, I had to pick my way gingerly, trying to avoid my big toes bashing into the front of my shoes. When my toes weren’t screaming in protest, my available mental capacity was focused on the prospect of visiting the, um, facilities at the Swyncombe aid station. Runners coming the other way were full of cheery “not far nows” as we approached, but what’s this? A fucking gazebo? No toilet facilities here, porcelain or otherwise. Shit. Almost literally. Sigh.
I scoffed some food, topped up my tailwind and water, blahdy blah, spending no more than 5 or 6 minutes doing so. And off we go again, up and down, toes complaining. Having crossed the golf course for the second time, I emerged from the gap in the hedge to be greeted by my wife and youngest daughter. They had been chasing me round the Chilterns, not factoring in the 5 or 6 minute delay in the “live” tracking, just missing me at Swyncombe. I wasn’t expecting to see them at all, so it was a nice surprise, although a brief one, I was all gotta go, I’m in an actual race here!
I was looking forward to my second dose of Grim’s Ditch, it’s a very runnable gentle downhill all the way back to Mongewell. OK you’ve still got to dodge the tree roots, but decent progress is definitely possible. So much so, I decided to skip a few walk breaks, making up some time I’d lost on the way out. I’d like to say this was entirely for reasons of cunning race tactics, but mainly I really needed the loo that was waiting for me at North Stoke! I’ll spare you the details, of course, but suffice to say it was a relief to get there and find the lav unoccupied. My load duly lightened, I headed off back to Goring, racing the remaining daylight.
I was back at Race HQ, halfway, in under 10 hours, impressing myself in the process. Maybe 22 hours is on after all? I dithered a bit longer on this stop, changing base layers for a new merino wool one, a recent 60% off bargain from a closing down sale in a running shop. I also had a minestrone cup-a-soup, a fairly ordinary store-cupboard staple that is elevated to near culinary perfection when inserted into an ultramarathon. With cheese sarnies to dunk in my soup, and alertness levels restored with a hastily chugged Red Bull, I was a happy ultra runner and out the door in just over 15 minutes. I had eaten precisely NONE of the potatoes and other snacks I’d taken with me at the start of Leg 2, it just wasn’t a potato kind of day. The funny thing is I carried the same potatoes, wraps and gels for the next 50 miles! Silly, getting on for a kilo of extra weight for no benefit.
Leg 3 – Goring – Chain Hill – Goring
The first few kilometres of this stretch of the Ridgeway are on roads west out of Streatley, nothing to write home about. The fun really starts when you hit the trails proper with a climb lasting a good mile till you’re on the downs at the top. I found I overtook quite a few folks when walking uphills, my seven league boots serving me in good stead. By this time in the race I had my headphones jammed in, so several people were subjected to my one-person sing-a-long as I belted out 80s tunes, they are probably due an apology. The surface on Leg 3 is quite different to the other three, chalky rutted bridleways being the defining feature I think. There’s too much running along narrow ruts for my liking, my clodhoppers are too big to make that easy or comfortable. I was forever swapping ruts to see if one was better than the next. They never were. I got to the East Ilsley checkpoint in good order, my feet feeling just a little tender in places. I debated sorting them out, but the toe socks are such a faff, I put it off, heading straight out towards Chain Hill, just grabbing some water melon, another below average foodstuff that assumes epic qualities when offered at an aid station. Wow.
Onwards and yes, upwards. Plodding on, I managed to get lost pretty close to Chain Hill. I took the right fork downhill (highlighted in yellow below) when I should have taken the left fork up. Fork up is the word! I realised half a mile down the hill that I’d gone wrong, also noticed by several dot watchers who did their best to alert me. Do I go back, or can I cut across and regain the path? A quick glance at the OS maps app on my phone confirmed that forging on was the best option, then I promptly took the wrong path again, missing my first route correction option. WTF! Never mind, I found a good path that would eject me right into the disco at Chain Hill. Hill being the operative word, actually, this shortcut was up a steep slope, I had to stop a couple of times to catch my breath.
I spent a good ten minutes faffing at this aid station, simple operations such as removing my race vest, filling up soft flasks, generally titting about, all taking longer after 60 miles than it did earlier on.
From this point on I was in “longest run ever” territory, and getting longer with each stride, 100k being my longest to date. The strangest thing on the way back to Goring was that I lost the ability to tell if the path ahead of me was uphill, flat or downhill. Perhaps it was my ultra brain, or perhaps it’s just harder to tell at night. I’d be running along then think, ooh, uphill, I can walk this. Is it uphill though? I’m not convinced. The best gauge was the headtorches of oncoming runners. If they looked higher up then I could be fairly sure I was on an uphill section. I reckon I walked quite a few sections that I could have run, just having convinced myself it was a slight uphill. Still, I ran the 20k back to Goring 20 minutes faster than I had done going the other way.
In general, Leg 3 was hard work. My feet and knees were feeling battered by the time I got back to race HQ, making the prospect of another 25 miles an unwelcome one. My pacer for the final stretch, Patrick, was there waiting for me as I arrived, looking all chirpy and not like someone who has just run 75 miles. I took my time on this stop, spending half an hour to get my feet in the best state they could be. I removed all the tape, cleaned and dried my feet then replaced the tape, adding a few other bits for good measure. Fresh socks on, more heavenly cup-a-soup consumed, we got going. I’m not sure exactly when the miracle occurred, but occur it did. On standing, my legs felt great! I mean fresh legs great, leg transplant great. I don’t know if it was the lengthy sit down, the soup, the 2nd Red Bull, or the euphoria of “only” having 25 miles left, I really don’t, but whatever it was I liked it a lot!
Leg 4 – Goring – Reading – Goring
With my miraculously fresh legs, I was able to sustain a pretty good pace. My run-walk intervals had got a bit, er, flexible on Leg 3, but now, at 1:30 am, 75 miles in, I’m bashing out 8 minutes running with no bother. I want to run, in fact, it’s not a chore at all. That all came to a temporary but rapid halt when I tripped over a tree root on the only bothersome section of Leg 4, not half a mile out from Goring. I bashed my left hip and elbow on landing, but no race-ending damage was done and on we went, jogging along quite the thing. Like Leg 2, the midway aid station at Pangbourne is not midway, a mere 4.9 miles from Goring. I was slightly offended by the stairs, not what you want at that stage in the game, but a quick pitstop was achieved, just 3 or 4 minutes including the stairs. Meadows next, with moored canal boats, until Mapledurham lock when the Thames Path veers off sharp right to head through Purley, a rather sleepy suburb of Reading.
The infamous “Welcome to Reading” sign next, but at least I knew it was still 5 miles to the turnaround. We were still maintaining a steady 8 minutes run, 2 minutes walk pace and moving well. Patrick was in charge of the difficult sums. How long is left? How fast do we need to move to do sub 24? How fast for sub 23? This was all beyond me by this point, I was happy to be told. At the start of Leg 4 we had about 8 hours to do 26 miles (the 4th leg is slightly long, the 1st is slightly short). I could almost have walked it in with time to spare for sub 24, but the tantalising prospect of sub 23 was definitely on. We continued on through Reading, all familiar territory from the recce, and because I live there!
Leg 4 has all the stairs. There’s steps up a particularly steep bit of path on the way to Pangbourne, the aid station at Pangbourne is up two flights of stairs (twice), two footbridges (both twice) and the kicker, the turnaround aid station also has steps! I made it up and down those, begrudging every one, a quick top up of water and some food taken on then off again.
Reassured that there was plenty of time left to ease off the pace a bit, I began to steal more of the 8 minute stints for walking, just a minute here or there. I think we got to half and half at one stage, but my walking pace was still good so we didn’t lose much time. On and on we went, still moving fairly well, overtaking folks reduced to a shambling walk. In fact over the whole of Leg 4 I gained 25 places overall, which just goes to show it’s good to leave some running in your legs for the latter stages.
I was kit-checked at the second visit to the Pangbourne aid station, no dramas, everything Ally wanted to see was in my dry bag in the race pack, a matter of moments to tick them off. I had a brief sit down, just a few minutes here, more out of lack of sleep than muscle fatigue I think, then on we went. Walking through the car park, I heard someone say “You’re supposed to be running!”. I thought that was a bit cheeky for that time of day, turned out it was my wife again, popping up unexpectedly to say hello. Fortified by a light snog (I’m fairly sure this doesn’t count as crewing!) I had just over 80 minutes to do under 5 miles to sneak in under 23 hours. Loads of time! I asked Patrick to call out each passing mile, the adult equivalent of “are we nearly there yet?” I decided I would just walk through the rooty section where I tripped over on the way out, perhaps adding 5 or 10 minutes, partially making up for it by a burst of marathon pace speed for the final few hundred metres to the finish.
My A100 journey ended with a sprint finish, relatively speaking, in 22hr47, comfortably under 23 hours and well under my sub 24 goal.
I am really happy I took on 100 miles, and really happy to have been introduced to the mad world of ultra running this year. For those of a numerical bent, here are the stats for my race off the Centurion tracking website.
So now comes recovery, and all the food. I don’t plan on running any time soon, perhaps a few weeks, certainly I’ll be easing myself back into it, this 100 mile business takes it out of you, I gather, miracle legs or no.
I’ll be back later this year with a training update and a look ahead to next year’s ultra plans.