The longest nine minutes

For the fourth time I looked at my watch, but it was still only 27 minutes past.

Keep on moving, keep on running.. Just three more minutes

The numbers changed, but the mantra was the same.


The Plan. When I entered the Centurion Running Thames Path 100, I figured I would need a new race strategy. In my previous two 100s, I’ve had a simple plan of walking the steep bits and running the rest. The Thames Path is pancake flat apart from a few bits (more about them later), and I know non-stop running isn’t realistic. Sarah’s recent injury meant she had adopted the Jeff Galloway run/walk method for her debut marathon. While his book really frustrated me (too many assertions with no empirical data to back them up), I thought some of the ideas made sense. In particular he advocated starting walk breaks early in the race. After a couple of training runs I settled on a plan. I’ve no idea if this is the most effective run/walk ratio, or pattern but it is simple, and simple becomes very important on long runs:

  • Run for the first 10 minutes then walk for a minute.
  • Run for 9 minutes, walk for one
  • Repeat

In short, if my watch showed a number with a zero at the end, I could walk, if not keep running.

The beginning. A 10am start is quite a luxury for ultra distance races, particularly as Sarah had offered to drive me to the start and crew for the entire event. Out of bed at six and in the car by seven for the drive to Richmond. Registration and kit check was incredibly efficient, and left time to catch up with familiar faces and friends made at previous races. Before long we gathered on the path by the river, and were sent on our way. I had positioned myself just behind the front row of runners. While I was planning to start walking early, I was also aiming for a 17hr something finish, and knew I’d be comfortable running with the lead pack for a while. In fact it was a chilly morning, so after the first ten minutes, I decided to miss the walk break and keep running to warm up. However after twenty minutes, I managed to control myself and revert to the plan. This also gave me the chance to start snacking – something I’ve failed to do well previously. A few runners gave me some odd looks as they passed me, but I had to trust the plan, and hope it would pay me back later in the day. The first checkpoint came and went quickly with just a brief stop to fill up my flasks. It had started out cold, so I was wearing gloves, hat, buff and arm warmers at the start, as well as a short sleeved shirt. However I was warming up nicely, and soon took these off, and packed them away.

Crew. Centurion races are superbly organised, and the volunteers are amazing. Not once did I Text Msgneed to refill my flasks, as someone did it for me at every aid station. So you really don’t need your own support crew, but that said a crew can really help if something goes wrong.  It was starting to get quite warm and having to manage hydration with a single 500ml flask would have forced me to slow down. With Sarah on the case I only stopped for a minute to send a text and an hour later the problem was behind me.

Navigation Follow the river, look out for the red and white tape, orange chalk and Centurion arrows and you can’t go wrong.IMG_1079 I still missed two turns though. You only have to let your mind wander for a second and you’ll run past a clearly marked turn and clock up a few bonus miles.  Fortunately I was called back by another runner the first time, and the second time, in Staines, I saw runners on the other bank and doubled back. Those were my only excursions off course, and barely added a half mile, so no harm done.

The Route. I really must bring my children up here to explore some of the Thames Path. From Windsor to Marlow we ran through some lovely towns and villages, although if I’m honest they are all a bit blurred in my memory. I’m sure I saw a couple of good pubs that must be worth tracking down. The miles and hours were ticking over nicely and I was being really disciplined with my race plan. The 9/1 plan felt comfortable, and the walk breaks ensured I was drinking regularly. I was also eating every hour from my own supplies as well as grazing at each Aid Station.

Half Way. By 4pm it was starting to cool down, and I thought about stopping to get my arm warmers out, but decided to press on. I was still seeing other runners, but only very occasionally now, and it was obvious that I was steadily moving up through the field. I checked my Garmin Fenix at 50 miles. I wanted to know my time and where that put me against my targets. 7:45 was still on track for my A goal. I was now on the riverbank at Henley, and crossed the bridge, where I saw a volunteer in a Centurion hoodie wave me on to the path and towards the aid station. Again, this was a quick stop. Volunteers refilled my flasks while Sarah helped me dig my arm warmers and buff out of my pack. The selection of food looked fantastic, but I didn’t want to hang around, especially as they confirmed I was now up to 6th place.

Injury woes. My left foot had been hurting for a few miles. I rarely get blisters on my sole or toes, although I do get them under my big toe nails, which eventually lifts them off. However this was a different pain.

Pain

Pain

The ligaments on the top of my foot were hurting, and I tried changing my gait to allow me to flex the ankle and stretch it out. It was still only a 5 out of 10 type pain, so wasn’t going to impact my race, but I knew I’d need to fix it before it got worse. I passed another runner after a couple of miles, and we chatted for a minute of so. I arrived in Reading to cheers from the aid station crew and the welcome sight of Sarah and Beks. Beks had been part of my crew for SDW, and had again offered to join us for the night section and pace me later. I put a long sleeve top on here, and then asked Sarah to massage the top of my foot to loosen it up. I think the swearing may have started at this point. As my shoes were off, I also changed my socks. It’s a lovely feeling having fresh kit after 58 miles in the same socks. In total I was probably at the Aid Station for about 10 minutes, but as soon as I started running again I felt much better. There was more mobility in my ankle and it didn’t feel like my left foot was slapping the ground like I was running in flippers.

The grim  bit. Arriving at Pangbourne was a boost. I had run from Pangbourne to Oxford in March, so knew where I was. In training this was a 5hr run, and for the race I hoped it would take about 6 if I could keep it all together. As I ran into Whitchurch another volunteer called out “This way David. the Aid station is down here”. How they knew my name, I’ve no idea as it was  already too gloomy to read my number. More Centurion magic!

Sticking to the plan was getting really tough now. I’d stopped taking food parcels from my crew, and was just eating fruit at the aid stations. Any excuse to break up the 9 minute run and take an extra walk break was happily accepted, but then I saw head torches ahead, and that helped motivate me to push harder. I caught Sally just as the path turns off from the river in Moulsford. She and her pacer were looking for the route markings, so I called out and led them up to the road section.

Pacers. The path over the meadows seemed to go on forever, but finally I got to Wallingford. Beks was joining me here, to pace me to Abingdon, where Sarah would take over and run me to the finish. The path here is mostly a grass track over the fields and the weather had started to turn. The promised downpour hadn’t arrived but it was drizzling, so the long wet grass soon soaked my feet.

I was really struggling now and couldn’t manage running for more than three or four minutes. However Beks soon helped me understand why. She told me to slow down, and when she took the lead and ran at a sensible 10 – 10:30 pace I found I could run for much longer. We’d found a good rhythm and were making good progress again. Once again we saw the glow of head torches ahead, and steadily caught up with Nick Greene and his pacer. Nick looked to be struggling, plodding along behind with head down.

Sadly our good progress didn’t last too long. Beks was suffering. She and Sarah had found somewhere to eat an evening meal, but clearly the food wasn’t sitting well with her and she wouldn’t be able to continue, so i would run alone from Clifton to Abingdon where Sarah would join me. I was still sticking to the plan – running (slowly now) for 9 minutes and walking for 1, but looking at my watch every thirty seconds, praying time would speed up.

How could it only have been a minute to that tree?

Why does a minute of walking go in the blink of an eye, but one of running last so long?

At Wallingford it had looked like I might smash my A target and possibly go sub 17. Now I was ready to settle for a 17:30. I don’t remember the path, but eventually saw the lights of Abingdon, where I saw Sarah, Beks (looking a little better now) and a friendly aid station team. They told me I was now in 2nd, and looking strong still.

We set off and I asked Sarah to lead. I planned on just following her, letting her set the pace, but I carried on checking my watch every few seconds. This was the worst section of trail when I ran the recce, and it hadn’t improved. Puddles, roots and mountainous bridges. Sarah ran up them, I used the hand rail to drag myself up, while silently cursing her. At least I think I was doing it silently… she has not complained yet.

My mind was starting to go now, and I was struggling to work out how far I had to go. Mental arithmetic was a real struggle and pace calculations beyond me. My Garmin Fenix was in UltraTrac mode, so capturing a GPS reading just once a minute. As a result it cuts off corners and always under reads. We left Lower Radley at 01:11 and my Garmin showed 94.5 mi. For some reason I was convinced we had 6.5 miles to go. There was no way I would get under 17 hours, so why not just walk a bit? Sarah though was having none of it.

Finally we left the cruddy trail and arrived on the groomed bike track that I remembered from my recce run. Surely no more than two miles to go. At this point I heard the gate slam shut behind me, and looking back saw to head torches blazing out of the night. Nick must have had a shot of rocket fuel somewhere. He was moving well, head held high and ran past with a cheery wave. I swear he was running twice as fast as me, and this wasn’t a walk break. Sarah suggested we chase him, but I just couldn’t accelerate. Five minutes later we saw the lights of the finish. When she paced me on SDW100, Sarah pulled over and made me run the lap of the track alone, but this time I grabbed her hand and we ran over the line together.

Third Place and a 2hr PB – My best ever result in a race of any distance!

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A huge thank you to:

  • Sarah and Beks. I’m sure I’d have been 30 minutes slower if I’d run alone.
  • James, Nici and the Centurion team, for putting on a great race.
  • The 95 volunteers, whose enthusiasm and support was superb all day and night.
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