Sunday, 20 September 2020

2020 Centurion Thames Path 100 - at the sharp end

This was my fifth attempt at the Centurion Thames Path 100. My previous attempts were:

2015 - First 100 mile race. Made it halfway in 9:34 then suffered from horrendous blisters and incessant rain in the second half but finished in 23:03

2016 - Third hundred mile and raised expectations. Made it to halfway in 9:47 but feeling better than 2015. Changed shoes to low drop trail shoes at Henley which caused a hamstring problem. This was compounded by a fall in a muddy puddle, Managed to drag myself round in 23:36. Basically walked it in from Reading (43 miles of marching).

2017 - High expectations. Started very strongly getting to Henley in 9:10 and on course for 21 hours. Faded quite badly in the second half with a tight knee/hamstring. Finished in a PB of 22:27

2019 - Low expectations. I had been flagged as having an unusual heart ECG output in my work medical. I had run a 21:41 at the SDW100 the year before so thought I might sneak the sub 21 I should have done in 2017. Got to halfway in 9:45 not really feeling it. Got it done in 23:06 after a lot of walking in the second half. Heart was absolutely fine (I have LVH in common with most endurance participants)

I was back for 2020 for a 5th attempt. It should have been in May but had been rescheduled to September because of COVID. It also meant it was only 4 weeks after the NDW100 which was a tough race. I had pretty much recovered but had a tight hamstring. Not ideal going into a 100 but you don't really use your hamstrings on the Thames Path.

The Thames Path 100 starts in Richmond. Normally it is a hive of activity with nearly 300 runners plus crew and volunteers to start the race. This time it was very different due to COVID protocols. I had originally planned to arrive at about 7:45 but got lucky with a train connections so got there at 7:20. There were a handful of runners there but nothing compared to normal

Normally I'm pretty quick at getting my stuff ready but was faffing around to put off starting. The race window started at 7:30 and I dropped my bags off and was ready to go. The 7:30-8:00 window was for sub 22 runners. I had only run sub 22 once in 10 attempts at 100 miles but was in good from coming off a top 30 finish at the NDW100

I chatted to a few people at the start. There were only a few people there anyway. Henry Church and I had a chuckle at the people stretching and warming up. That is what the first couple of miles is for...

There were about 15-20 runners off in the first couple of minutes and then a lull. A few people were hanging out so I figured I might as well get going. There was a mini rush as people had the same idea. It was a weird case of "no after you, no you first" with nobody desperate to start. I had my temperature taken and bid number inputted. A couple of us had been registered before someone asked "when do we start" and the answer was "you already have, get going..."

I ended up running on my own at the start. About a mile in, there is normally a bottle neck for a gate - the smart people follow the markings of the slightly longer path round but no need today. I set of at a fairly steady 9 minute mile pace. I had a walking break at 25 and 55 minutes but still managed to get to 10km in under an hour. It was an absolutely stunning morning with clear blue skies but a nice cool temperature.

I met a guy who had DNSed the NDW100 due to being involved in a car crash just before being dropped off. He was also due to the do the GS100 but was out before it had begun. He got an Uber this time to the start...

The first aid station was slightly earlier this year at 10.5 miles rather than the usual 12. It was tucked away behind a hedge in a field. I was used to the aid station drill from the NDW. Quick hand sanitise then refill the bottles and cup or two of Pepsi and then a snack.

It was empty when I got in but one person was waiting when I finished. I was out pretty quickly and had cover the 10.5 miles in 1:41. My 11th mile was 12:25 including the stationary time at the aid station. All going well. I had hoped the early start would keep me ahead of any possible queues.

I hit a bit of a lull during the next section. I really couldn't be bothered. I was executing a plan and it was all going well. It was just a bit, well boring... It was my 5th time on the course and I knew it well. I have run quite a bit of it on the Phoenix races so there were no surprises. Pace wise everything was going well. Normally my mood here is improved by overtaking all the people who had set off to quickly - bonus points if they look spannered in the first 20 miles. However I had started at the front so limited scope for this.

There was fairly limited interaction with the public but a special shout goes to the lady with the walking stick who must have been about 80. She looked at me for a bit and then said "oooooh Bad boy...." which really cracked me up. Not sure what her husband thought of that....

I did see Giacomo briefly. We had run part of it together in 2019 and also some of the NDW100 with both of us finishing reasonably well but not super fast. He was running at 9 minute miles and I was more like 9:30. My heart rate ticked up a bit over what I was aiming so I let him speed of into the distance. I had been trying to keep my HR to roughly 150 and the extra 30 seconds was pushing it up towards 160 so I eased things back with a walking break.

Alice Hector photo with John

I ended up running with John for quite a while. John is an IT consultant from Bristol who "only runs so he can eat more biscuits".. He didn't mention it but John also has some medals of the kind you don't get for jogging. Alice Hector to a great photo of us running as we went through Windsor. Alice's name seemed familiar - turns out she had won the women's Bastion iron distance triathlon in 2014. She was winning it just as I was starting my run. She has also won the NDW100.

It was the first extended period of running with someone. Soon enough the second aid station was here. It was inside so I needed to grab my mask as well as coke cup. I kept them both in the same pocket of my backpack so now issues digging it out. A lot of people used a buff but I think taking an extra purpose made one is worth it as it quicker to take on and off plus it is more comfortable.

Marathon mark was covered in 4:15 - my fastest marathon of the year. I was still keeping it well in line with my preliminary goal of getting to Henley in 9 hours. The next few miles were focused on keeping on the right pace and keeping on top of nutrition. I went through Dorney in 5:04:40. By comparison, my 2017 split was 5:04:18. I figured I was on 21 hour pace but obviously my 2017 experience showed that wasn't guaranteed. I was looking at the comparison on fetcheveryone between my 2017 and 2020 paces. For 35 miles, my times were both 5:50:42.

Cookham was a good checkpoint for me. I had a quick chat with my namesake Mr Stuart, plus Marco and Tremayne. The NDW153 is on my radar one day... I had a bit of a chat with a member of the public coming out of the aid station. He was running and I was fast walking. I felt a bit rough having down a chunk of pepsi plus melon so just need a bit of time to settle things down. I still managed to record a 14:19 mile. They key is to be efficient and not lose too much time.

I had another quick stop at Hurley. Mark Fox was talking a passer-by through the aid station protocols and safety measures. He then said "these are the runners at the sharp end". I pointed out that I'm normally the wide bit in the middle. This made me laugh and smile in equal measure.

There is a bit of a detour away from the Thames through Culham Court. It is a beautiful estate and adds some enjoyable change of gradient.It feels bit like you are tresspassing through a billionaire's estate but all perfectly legal. The Flower pot pub is at the end which is the 103 mile checkpoint of the KACR145 and not too far from Henley. I overtook someone who was struggling with their stomach which they put down to the heat. For me, it was gloriously cool after the 36c of the NDW...

I could hear what sounded like a Kaiser Chiefs tribute band with "Ruby", and "I predict a riot" coming through the air. It started to get much busier towards Henley with lots of people hanging out around boats and out for walks. There some people who like to take up the entire width of the path and social distancing adds to the fun. However I was extremely polite as I weaved my way through the crowds. I might be fine but I could cause problems for those behind me if I barged through.

As I approached Henley, it turns out there was a music festival - "Pub in the Park". There was flotilla of boats heading back towards Henley as well lots of people. It turns out it actually was the Kaiser Chiefs. If I had got there later, it would have been Groove Armada which are one of my favourite bands. Normally Henley is tricky to navigate with lots of drunk people but I was there a bit earlier so it wasn't too bad. Also I guess the festival took out a few people. 50 miles came up on my watch in 8:45. The aid station was 51 miles so well on course for 9 hours. My 50 mile PB was earlier in the year at 8:15 so a nice pace.

My 2015 Autumn 100 split for 50 miles was 8:47 but that had turned into a 22:40 but I was hoping for something a lot better than that today. It was lovely day at 4:30pm at this point so the river was very busy. The checkpoint is always slightly further than you think it should be and I eventually got there at 9:05. Would liked to have broken 9 hours but it was near enough. I was 5 minutes up on 2017.

There were some familiar faces at Henley with Dan Park, GC, and Louise on checkpoint duties. I put on my base layer and grabbed my main headtorch (I took two from the start like everyone should). It felt a bit early to put on a base layer but it was heading towards evening and didn't want to stop on the trail or risk putting it on too late.

Normally I have grabbed a bowl of pasta here but there was no hot food. I think this was a blessing in disguise as I have often stalled coming out of Henley as my body struggles to take on the food. It was a can of coffee and I was on my way. Can coffee is quite a good option. It is a terrible thing to have normally because it is packed with sugar and caffeine with loads of calories. A 250ml can has as many calories as some gels. It was also the first time I had sat down in the race. This would be my slowest mile of the race in just over 20 minutes - not too bad considering it included drop bag admin.

It was fair bit more weaving for the next few miles. It started to ease off a few miles out of Henley once through Shiplake. There were some really considerate people on this section how stood off the way for me to come through. I made very good progress through to Reading in 10:40. Normally it a race to get to Reading before putting the headtorch on but the 7:38am start rather than the usual 9:30/10 meant it was still really early and just after 6pm. There were people playing rounders in the park and the finish of one of the Saturn running events. It also meant I could be sneaking through Reading without too many drunks interrupting my progress.

Another very quick aid station with a brief chat to Paul Ali and I was on my way. It wasn't too different to normal with the exception of a one-way system. It was a mask aid station but I was ready for that. Pro-rata mark for a sub 20 here was 11:36 so I was an hour inside that. I could slow do a bit and still finish 20 sub. Required pace was about 13 minutes a mile which is still quite fast for the second half of a 100.

There were still a few drunks out and about in central Reading. I negotiated my through a Hen do with a bit of a chat. They were asking what I was up to and mentioned I was running to Oxford. They asked if I was running for charity and when I said no, the next question was why? From previous interactions with civilians the standard answer is "Bantz". You are running 100 miles for "Bantz"??? Well yes and I better get a move on...

I was hoping to get to the Pangbourne aid station without needing a head torch and it was still quite bright. There were quite a few fishermen out and some interesting characters - not to mention some potent performance non-enhancing aromas. I had a good bit on banter with some guys with playing some drum and bass. It seem big fish-little fish-cardboard box still works in the 21st century.

The next few miles are away from the Thames and start with a railway bridge and the famous "Welcome to Reading sign". I've run this section several times in the dark but it was sunset this time. It was a fantastic sunset and I was waiting until I got back on the river to take a perfect shot but it clouded over and looked a bit lame. A few more miles along the fields and I made it to Pangbourne.

The aid station was the other side of Yarn Bomb bridge and avoided the usual detour to Whitchurch. Nice to save a metres off the course. Historically the TP route has gone straight up the hill but recently seems to go through a Church yard and some fancy houses before rejoining the road a few metres up the way. I found Giacomo looking a bit lost here and then Drew a bit further up trying update the markings through the roadworks.

The next section was very interesting to say the least. It was starting to get dark and there was Mount Whitchurch to navigate. Heardtorches were now on - probably should have put them on a bit earlier to be honest as it was getting rooty and dark in the woods. However getting to 67 miles into the TP100 before needing them was a great result.

There were a few groups of people out having fires and hanging out by the river but it was pretty quiet now. Just making sure I didn't knock any fishing rods over. There were some random people cheering us on towards Goring and a few people in the pubs.

Goring was the last drop bag and 71 miles in. I made it here in 13:20 compared with 14:16 in 2017. I had put nearly an hour on my 2017 time which was helped by the extra daylight and moving through Henley nicely. A sub 21 was definitely on. I sat down for a cup of tea and grabbed my back up battery (not that I needed it) and was on my way. There was a detour out of Goring - whilst a bit longer, it was nice to run something slightly different. This was the 8th time I'd done this bit as it is the start of the A100.

This was a mixed section with quite a lot of road bits which were good opportunities to make up time. I was keeping the miles down in the 12s and 13s which was really good. I had some company heading towards Wallingford. I made my excuses as we got closer to the aid station and pushed on a bit when we got within the village. I always like to run into aid stations as you get a natural break and it is also reduces your chances of a queue.

I was slightly thrown by the aid station being in the gym over the road from the usual place but was back into my routine. As I was leaving, the runners I had been chatting to were waiting for an aid station spot to become available. My 79th mile was 14:36 including the stop so they can't have been waiting more than a few seconds. I had made it here in just under 15 hours and making huge chunks up on 2017 (16:20).

Going through Wallingford was a blast from the past - the days before lockdown. I had to negotiate my way around an absolutely hammered man who was wielding a bottle and propped up by his mates. Apparently he still thought he would get past the bouncers into one of the pubs. I had hoped I had timed my run well through Reading but offset that here. It was fine but it is one of the perils of overnight ultras. I turned my headlight off for this section too - 700 lumens at point blank range often antagonises people and draw unnecessary attention.

The section to Clifton Hampden is probably the longest between aid stations - certainly time wise. It has a bit of a road section followed by one of the coldest areas in the home counties. There is a meadow just off the Henley road which seems to be at least 5c colder than anywhere else. It was covered in frost in 2017 and had a heavy dew which meant my feet were soaked fairly quickly.

I bumped into Giacomo on the approach to Clifton Hampden. It is officially 7.5 miles but I always add one on. He was asking how far it was to go and showed me his watch and I joked it was an infinite amount to go... I made it 8.6 miles between CPs with the small diversion. Time elapsed was 16:40 for 85 miles. I was 20 minutes ahead of 20 hour pace and a whopping 2 hours up on 2017.

I was tempted by cup of tea but it was self-service due to COVID and that tipped the balance and I headed off with a cup of pepsi instead. My stomach had held up remarkably well on a diet of tailwind, coke, gels, and water with the odd bit of babybel/melon/jaffa cake thrown in to mix things up. I had just over 3 hours to cover 15 miles for a sub 20. Average pace required was just under 14 minute miles - definitely doable.

There were also a couple of things in my favour - the last "15 miles" comes out closer to 14 miles normally and we had a slightly shortened course. My watch was showing 87 miles rather than 85 so there was an outside chance of hitting 100 miles bang on. If that was the case, I had a bit more time in hand.

This was just as well as the last 15 miles are a bit tricky. Not Detling tricky but just a bit awkward to run at full speed in the dark. I didn't need to run full speed - a fast walk would almost be enough. It was quite weird to be doing this in the dark - every other time this was done in the early dawn rather than a 1am.

I was in a group of 4 or so heading towards the Abingdon CP but was dropping a little of the pace. The aid station was just round the bend of the river so I slowed to a walk into the CP. I timed it perfectly as the first two of the group where leaving as I was arriving. It is probably worth trying to be tactical to balance effort - no point running into a CP only to stand around for a while. This was the only time in the entire race. I had only sat down twice the entire race which was the same as the NDW and helped with my time enormously.

My watch ticked over to 92.5 miles at Abingdon. It was 91 (9 to go) in the road book but it normally works nearer 8, plus the finish was different so potentially it could be close to 7.5 miles to go. I had just under 2 hours for sub 20 which meant a fast walk would get it done. I made sure I was fully stocked out of Abingdon with an extra cup of coke so I could skip the last one. Sadly Lou wasn't here this year but it was still a nice efficient stop.

It was surprisingly muddy and I was wearing road shoes so I took it easy. I would rather take my time and be safe instead of taking a tumble (I had previous). The last CP was Radley College Boat House. I went past here with just a quick thank you to the volunteers and passing the timing beam before pushing onto the finish. Apparently it was 3.7 miles to the finish from here and my watch was at 18:51. I could walk at almost 20 minutes a mile so a sub 20 was pretty much in the bag.

I was struggling to much under 15 minutes a mile now but that was fine. I could have tried a finish like the NDW100 but figured there was no point in risking blowing up. I knew the finish was over a bridge but which one... My watch ticked closer and closer to 100 miles...

I had a slight quandry here. I was quite happy in some ways to have a distance under 100 miles as 100 races are always 100 miles even if they aren't exactly 100 miles. But it would be nice if it was just a fraction over. If it was 99.9, I wasn't ruling out a stroll round the car park before hitting stop... (don't tell James)

As I came towards a bridge, my watch hit three figures and a big sign said finish this way. The traditional finish is a gap in the hedge followed by a sprint across the field but this was new to me. I wasn't quite sure where to go. There were a few people around me but no point in racing too much as we probably started at different times anyway.

The down ramp to the finish had a barrier part way down it. It was heavily marked thank goodness. A sprint into them with yards to go would have been a disaster. The familiar inflatable arch appeared and I crossed the line in 19:40 - a PB by a full 2 hours and nearly 3 hours faster than I had ever run the Thames Path 100.

Stuart March

Stuart March photo

I had to spend a bit of time hanging around at the finish. My wife was due to collect me based on a 22 hour finish starting at 8am (plus faffing time after finishing) but I was there several hours early. It was just after 3am when I finished. First train wasn't until 8am otherwise I would have taken that.

I had a cup of tea and then a beer from my drop bag. I'm amazed that people have hot dogs straight after finishing. I didn't have anything until a McDonald's breakfast at the services on the way home. I was slightly in shock at my finish time. I had been on track for a sub 21 several times but lost momentum in the second half. I think the extra training I put in during lockdown had helped hugely plus having the strong finish at the NDW100 helped give me the confidence to push myself further into the race rather than taking it easy from Henley.

My A goal for the race was a sub 21 and qualification for Spartathlon and I was well inside even my most optimistic projections. I'm not sure I will do the Thames Path 100 for a 6th time as I think I finally got it right this time.... but then I would have laughed if someone had told me back in 2015 that I would run the race another 4 times.

The time was also over 5.5 hours faster than my finish at the NDW100. I think it puts that race into context. I finished 29th here and 28th for the NDW. I have traditionally finished races between 50th and 100th so to have two top 30s is quite a big step forward. I also beat Ken again to make it Ken 11 Dave 2 at Centurion events. It not quite how I expected the 2020 running year to go but I am very happy with it none the less.

So a big thank you to the Centurion team and the volunteers. The event was certainly different to . previous years. I missed the traditional gathering outside Richmond Hall, the mass start, and the hanging around in Univ sports ground. But Centurion delivered a first class, safe event and helped me achieved my dream of a sub 20 finish.

For me, going sub 20 is the ultra equivalent of a sub 3 marathon. There are a bunch of people who I wouldn't put myself in the same league who have UK Trail PBs in the 19:4x range. It also affirms my rule of thumb that your 5k PB x 60 should roughly be your 100 mile PB if you train well and have a good race (my 5k PB is 19:27)...

Giacomo still in shock after his 19:19 finish. (Edit 19:14 actually)

Stephen Cousins on the other side of the lense.

Another amazing finish for Ken - 22:11

1 comment:

  1. Great write up Dave.
    You looked to be running well when you came through Pangbourne.
    Congrats on a great time/race.