Saturday 3 July 2021

2021 Thames Path 100 - Half a dozen finishes

I often write up my race reports within a week or so of the race but this one in nearly two months late so might be more historical fiction that factual... 

 The previous 5 times I finished the Thames Path, I had claimed I wouldn't run it again and yet once again found myself on the start line. 

  •  2015 - My first 100 which featured torrential rain from Reading onwards, horrendous blisters, and 23:03 finish 
  •  2016 - The first leg of the 2016 GS which featured a leg injury caused by changing into low drop trail shoes at Henley, falling in a massive puddle 76 miles in, and a long trudge home to finish in 23:25 
  •  2017 - A decent effort. Good first half but poor second half with another leg niggle to finish in 22:27 (a PB at the time) 
  •  2019 - This was run under the cloud of a heart investigation. I had been diagnosed with suspected LVH (enlarged heart) so took it easy to start with and then jogged it in as I was comfortable pushing things too hard. Turn out a few weeks later, my heart was perfectly normal for someone who jogs quite a bit. Finished in 23:06 and felt a bit of a plonker for running it. 
  •  2020 - The COVID edition. It perfect weather and held during September. It started 2 hours earlier too so optimum conditions and led to a massive PB of 19:40. 
I figured I would retire there as I would struggle to beat that time. Come late 2020, I found myself on the entry list again... Given the Centurion team's ablity to put on races safely under COVID protocols it was a great race to have penciled into the calendar. 

 One of the reasons I have done the race so many times is the simple logistics. I jump on a train and after a quick change at Clapham Junction, I'm in Richmond. This time however, the train networks had different ideas with Victoria closed which meant no ability to change at CLJ so I would need to go to London Bridge and then across to Waterloo... oh and bus for the last bit so it would have been 3 hours rather than less than 1. My wife thankfully gave me a lift to the start. 

 It was absolutely tipping it down on the drive there. It wouldn't be ideal conditions with lots of standing water on the roads. I jumped out of the car and straight into registration. It was a pretty slick set up but with runners funnelled through Richmond townhall and out towards the river. No waiting around this time as the race had started 40 minutes ago... 

 I had a look at the live results page and it looks like I was about 100th over the line. It was raining reasonably steadily but this had the huge benefit of keeping the general public inside. It was very quiet on the riverside and this helped with making swift progress. I felt really good at the start and was zipping along at high 8 minutes a mile and made it 5 miles in 44 minutes. This was a bit of a wake up call and decided to take my first walking break. I also met the "taller than he looks on facebook" Spencer M for the first time in person. The green GS t shirt confirmed the sighting. There was also the fabulous Hampton Court. Not photos today as it was still damp. I had another walking break a while later but still made it to 10 miles in just under 88 minutes. 

The first aid station arrived shortly after in about 94 minutes - 7 or so faster than 2020. I thought I had timed my pit stop well with nobody really in front of me and I had passed a couple of runners a few hundred metres before the aid station. However there was a short queue for the aid station. It is generally very slick but the first aid station is always going to be a pinch point and due to my mid pack departure time, I was in the dense part of the pack. 

There was quite a bit of faffing by the runners in the aid station. One person had a bladder which isn't a great idea in races with so many aid stations (Ken Fancett's opinion too and he knows a bit about running 100s) and another was taking off their jacket and rearranging their pack. Unfortunately, the waiting runners have to wait until the person ahead has moved away from the table.... 

 I used a bladder for my first TP100. It was a massive faff to refill. In the pre-COVID days, some very kind volunteers would help but in COVID rules, you have to do it yourself. It takes a while to do properly to avoid leaks and air bubbles and then you have to repack your bag. It is also impossible to tell how much you have drunk and how much is left unless you take the pack off. For the TP100, aid stations are fairly close together so 1 litre from 2 bottles plus a few cups of water/coke/tea should be enough. Bottles - especially hard ones - can be refilled in a few seconds. 

 The waiting was a blessing in disguise. I had hoped to run using my wrist based HRM but it had gone a bit nuts. It was up in the 170s which is complete nonsense. It goes a bit whacky in the cold and rain but it was probably higher than the 135-140 I was aiming for. This was a chance to regroup and assess my pace. I had a refuel of coke, cheese, and a gel. Bottles refilled with one tailwind and one water. I was then on my way with some more hand sanitiser and thank yous to the volunteers. My watched ticked over to 11 miles and my 11th was 11:28. The hold up must have been less than a minute as my own stop would have been a while plus I walked out of the aid station. 

About 7 minutes up on 2020 and on par for 19 - 19:30 hour pace. I had several time goals for today. I think it helps with motivation to have more than one goal. Often if a race goes badly, it is easy to drop if the A goal is out of the window. My goals were: 
  • AAA - sub 19 
  • AA - new PB - currently 19:40 
  • A - sub 21 - the current Spartathlon qualification 
  • B - sub 23 - median finish time is 23:03 
  • B minus - sub 24 - a 6th "one day" buckle 
  • C - finish - always good to finish these things 
 I was in about 24th after the first aid station but took it a bit easier between 10 and 20 miles as things felt a bit quick. It is very easy to overcook it in the early stages and I had possibly gone a bit quick. I had a couple of walking breaks in this section but was feeling really good and keen to push on. 

A "highlight" was the blue bridge which will be very familiar to those of you who run Phoenix events. One of the slightly annoying aspect of the staggered starts is that you typically don't have runners of the same pace. But on the other hand you get to run with people that might not have been the case. I had a chance to run with Graeme Boxall for a bit along here. 

 CP2 soon arrived - I knew this was a "mask" one so had it ready. I had again timed my arrival well and got through it very smoothly. I was 42nd at this point and 7 minutes up on 2020 so stabilised my pace. I was a bit slow on the way out. I really mentally struggle for some reason on this part. There is a huge temptation to carve straight through the middle of the park but the markers show the route next to the river... 

It then follows a major road for a mile or so which is a bit dull. The next bit is quite nice though as you get to see Windsor castle. Next landmark was Victoria Bridge just after Datchet. This normally involves cutting across a park on the footpath to get back on the TP but there was a massive construction site which required a detour. It is the same for everyone but a 3 minute detour was a bit annoying. I had gone into ultra territory on this section with a 4:09 marathon - not a bad time and definitely not stopping me from achieving my AAA goal but probably nearer 20 hour pace. 

 Next up the 50k aid station of Dorney (31 miles). A few familiar faces (possibly Paul McLeery) but it is a while back now. It was lovely to get to 50k in under 5 hours. Amusingly I was 4:57 here versus 5:04 last year - that 7 minute gap again. I can't remember too much exciting of the 30-50 mile section. It always seems to drag a bit as there are quite a few miles in the legs but nowhere near even halfway (by time). I chatted to a few people along the way - always good for the spirit to chat to first timers who are making really good progress and likely on course for a sub 24. 

I have a few traditions on the TP - one is that I always walk through churchyards. It is a good excuse to take a break and it feels like something I should do out of respect. It also reminds me that I'm very fortunate to be able to run these things and there are some who have died before their time who can't. Cookham church is a scheduled walking break.... Hurley was 7:33 - good enough for 43rd place. I had stabilised in the low 40s which was a good sign. Also 7:33 for 44 miles is a smidge over 10 minutes a mile. That is proper running that... 

Reaching Hurley also reminds me of meeting Matthew - a friend of Paul Reader's. I met him a mile or two before Hurley. He was convinced he was nearly at Henley (or with a mile or two) as his watch had gone wonky. Always good to have the memory of the aid station distances - he had another 90+ minutes to Henley but he did ultimately get a sub 24. 

 One of favourite sections is Hurley to Henley. There is a slightly surreal moment when you go through a billionaire's estate which comes complete with Cricket field. You rejoin the Thames at the Flowerpot Pub which also serves as an aid station for KACR - this means less than 3 miles to the Henley aid station. One of the massive benefits of the earlier rain was that the Henley section was really quiet despite the weather being fairly dry now. In 2020, there was a music festival and fantastic weather so the run into Henley involved trying to squeeze past groups of oblivious people. There was however an absolute shocker of a headwind which meant my plans of running were turned to in a determined trudge. 

I paired up with someone here to pace each other into town. I also passed the 50 mile point by GPS in 8:38 - my fastest Centurion 50. I had hoped to dip under the magic 9 hours mark but arrived in 9:00:36. Looking back at my splits, the Hurley to Henley section was my worst (69th split ranking) but I think pushing hard into the wind would have been a lot of wasted energy.

My watch was 51.5 or so which was nice as it suggests it was tracking well. I saw the distinctive figure of David Harvey (6'4" version of Mick Hucknall) on the way in - a quick elbow bump greeting rather than the usual high five. I had a very rapid stop here. My main drop bag was going to be Goring as I was planning to get there for dusk. I grabbed a gel or two from my bag plus a can of coffee and was on my way. 

I had a quick chat with a few people (Louise A for sure) but was out very quickly. I hooked up with Marco in an amusing repeat of 2017. He was in bad way that year and was slightly struggling. I was a bit sluggish after the headwind fun so good to have company. I drank my can of caramel latte and was refuelled. Normally I've had a longer stop here but the earlier start and faster pace meant that sunset would hopefully be close to the Goring drop bag. 

 In the first few times I ran this, I had a major stop here with a bowl of pasta and big feed. I then came out the other side fuelled but somewhat sluggish. Getting to halfway in under 10 hours meant a sub 24 was on the cards and required pace was less than 4mph so walking was helping me get there. However I found that I really lost momentum between here and Reading - especially as it gets dark with the normal 930/10am start. This is probably still a good strategy if the aim is to finish rather than chasing a time. 

 I hooked up with Marco on the way out of the aid station. We had run most of the second half together in 2017 and it was good to catch up. I had seen him in a few aid stations previously but it was good to have a proper catch up. We made decent progress to Reading and beyond. I got slightly confused at Reading aid station as there was a one way system and plastic covers required for muddy shoes but eventually worked it out. Reading and beyond was fairly uneventful. There was quite a bit of chatter on facebook about the Reading to Tilehurst having potential of drunkards on the trail but there wasn't a single sole out on the riverside. Perhaps the forecast rain had put off those who enjoy a Saturday evening sitting around a fire drinking lager or smoking weed. 

Shortly after Reading is the 100km point. I went through here in 11:14 which was about 3 minutes faster than  my previous best 100k split. For context, the 100 mile world record was set the previous month also at 11:14 so I'm about 62% slower. I was running slightly quicker than Marco so we split up towards Pangbourne. 

Last year I had been spoiled with an outdoor section to the aid station but it was upstairs like Reading again. Indoors so the mask had to come out again. An extra flight of stairs should make no difference but somehow it does. But then again in previous years, it was a detour up a residential street so I shouldn't really complain. 

 The combination of an earlier start than normal (last year it was September) meant that for the first time ever, I ran the Pangbourne to Goring section in the light. It is completely different to the other 95 miles and features the only real climbing of the route. Mount Whitchurch is 30% in places... but only about 75 feet high. It features a step descent down some steps and then a climb out the other side. Quite confusing for the legs after 13 hours of flat terrain. There is then a half mile descent back to the river before coming into Goring. 

 I arrived into Goring about 3 minutes down on 2020. My times had been remarkably similar for the entire 70 miles - the biggest gap being the 7 minutes I was up after my overly enthusiastic start in the first 10 miles. There were a few familiar faces - whilst hard to recognise people behind masks, Sonny Peart's distinctive voice was instantly recognisable here. I had a small drop bag here which I was able to pick up and use everything from. Some people have massive bags with all sorts of random stuff in there "just in case". 

I had a bag with the intention of using everything. I had my main headtorch, a base layer, can of coffee, and a couple of gels. I changed into the merino base layer and popped the head torch on, and I was ready to. I put my BBR tshirt on over the top and my thin hiviz cycling jacket over the top of that and was out of the door. The other advantage is that I then didn't need to wait around at the finish for the Goring drop bag. On departure from Goring, I realised my outfit was way to warm. I hadn't even made it over the bridge and I was overheating. 

I took off the cycling jacket and as back to an appropriate temperature. The other main topic on facebook was how cold it gets overnight on the Thames. I have been incredibly cold in the past along but it was quite mild this year. My inov8 top was well designed with a hood and hand covers so it helped manage my temperature when it got colder later in the night. There had been some mud on the route which had generally made a minimal difference to pace but it started to get a bit trickier from here. 

In 2020, there was a longer road detour which at the time was quite annoying but probably would almost have been quicker this year. There some really quite muddy bits with boardwalks which made for slightly slower going. I had made the decision to go in road shoes (multicoloured Mizunos) which had been great up until here. I had a compare of my splits and whilst I had run this section in about 1:27 - about 3 minutes slower than last year but I had made huge improvements on the first 4 times I ran this race. My strava splits were fairly consistent at 1:51:16 / 1:51:27 / 1:52:22 / 2:06:47. 

The last one would have been in line with the other 3 but I fell in a puddle during that section in 2016 - ironically a year I wore trail shoes. Wallingford aid station was very slick. It helps when the field is more spread out but they were particularly keen at helping. It turns out one of the volunteers was a previous winner of the race and she set the British 100 mile record at the Centurion track 100 a few weeks before. 

I was out the other side of Wallingford fairly quickly via the garden of a pub. This was still during the time when only pub gardens were open so there were lots of people sat in a normally empty outdoor area which was slightly strange. These were the only vaguely drunk people on the entire route which has to be a first. 

I still had a chance of a sub 20 finish but a PB was probably gone at this point as I was about 10 minutes down on 2020 an struggling a bit with the terrain. My tailwind/gels/coke plus a few random bits of proper food was going well and my legs felt decent but I didn't quite have the push of last year - sub 21 was pretty assured though. 

This section is probably the toughest of the race. It comes fairly late on and I think is the longest time between checkpoints (first two are longer by distance). It starts of with some muddy trail, then crossing a weir over some very fast moving water which isn't fun, bit of a section on a road with very fast cars, a muddy meadow which is always colder than anywhere else in England, and then the longest section into the never ending darkness. I made decent progress but was struggling to get down towards the 12 minute miling I was aiming for at this stage. If I could keep it in the mid teens, I should have comfortable sub 21. The last landmark on this section is Day's lock - after that it is a really long left hand bend for about 2.5 miles / 40 minutes or so. 

In a small win for the runners, the usual CP was in use as a vaccination centre so one was set up by the churchyard - this had the massive advantage of not having to climb the hill to the normal location saving a few hundred yards. I went for the unusual option of hot water here. I have it at home sometimes and it is quite nice on the stomach. The only snag is that is exceptionally hot - I need to remember to add a bit of cold water next time so it doesn't slow me down. I sipped away at it when I started on the last 14 miles of the race. 

I had done well to have got this far before regretting my life choices. This normally happens at some point in 100 mile races and 15 miles to go isn't too bad. This was the 6th time I've done the Thames Path and know the last 15 (more like 13.8) miles of the route very well. 

I've been fortunate to have a target to chase the every time I've left Clifton Hampden. 
  • 2015 - blistered feet meant I couldn't run and came out the checkpoint at sunrise and walked it in for just over 23 hours. It was nearly 4 hours of focussed walking which was quite fun as it was my 100 and I came away with a One Day buckle. 3h38m05 from Clifton Hampden to the finish 
  •  2016 - a hamstring injury - probably related to changing shoes at Henley - meant I had to walk it in. I was about 30 minutes slower to here than the previous year so I had to push on and sneaked under 24 hours. It was the first leg of the Grandslam so happy with a conservative finish. My watch went a bit funny so I don't have the split but guessing about 3h45m 
  •  2017 - having been on course for a big PB, I had faded after Henley and was struggling to run so ended up walking it in for small PB. I had the target of the old Sparthlon mark of 22:30 and I just made it with a 22:27. 3h38m23s from CH to the finish according to Strava. 
  •  2019 - I had been off the pace most of the day this year but had a strong finish as I had quite a bit left in the tank. I really enjoyed the last section and had the aim of beating 2015 but couldn't quite make it with a 23h06 finish. CH to the finish was 3h14 
  •  2020 - This was my best ever race. I came out of Clifton H with 3hr15 to break the magic 20 hours. I pushed pretty hard and took 2h55 to get to the finish - probably would have been 3h05m with usual Oxford Uni finish. 
  •  2021 - I came out CH in just under 17 hours so if could push hard, I had a good chance of breaking 20 hours... 
 I set off with a distinct purpose and about 3 hours to go. I then got about 100 yards down the path as starting slipping and sliding - sub 20 hours wasn't happening... Another long stretch in the mud and dark with lots of slippery boardwalks before the Abingdon CP. 

Dimi and Lou Fraser were there and it was a great stop. I fuelled up with an extra cup or two of coke so that I could bypass the Radley stop. The last two sections are about 8.5 miles and I had done several sections that long already so definitely a good strategy. 

 It is about 8.5 miles to the finish from Abingdon and I was here in 18h30. Clearly sub 20 was out of the window but I had a secondary goal of sub 20h20. This was a cool sounding time and would mean the average of my best two finishes would be 20 hours. My legs were in reasonable shape and I felt like I could push on a bit. I had also had enough so would be happy to get it done. 

 This new found enthusiasm lasted about 15 minutes when I reached Barton Fields. I had eaten my CP snacks and the coke had settled so I was all set to push on.  I was still with Tom and between us there were a lot of swear words dropped on this section. It is muddy at the best of times but was a mess with many puddles covering the width of the path. Apart from Barton Fields, the terrain was probably ok but I had started to take it easy at this point as it felt like awkward slip could easily result in a nasty injury with tired legs. 

 It is possible to make up (or lose) large chunks of time in the later stages of the race. Gaining 5 minutes early on cost quite a lot of energy but it is fairly easy to trade a couple of 15 minute miles (fast walk) for a couple of 12 minute miles (half run/half walk). Tom and I were keeping up the pace on the tarmac or well surfaced sections with the old "lets run to the next lampost" etc. but there was a lot of walking. I went past Radley with only a brief pause to thank to the volunteers. I was here in 19h30 so it would take something spectacular to break 20h20 as it was about 4.5 miles to go. Likewise I only needed 20 minutes a mile to break 21 hours so barring a disaster, that was in the bag. I mainly walked this section until the edge of Oxford when the path turns into tarmac and makes running easier. 

 I had been running with Tom for quite a while and was in slightly better form. I went past the 2020 finish with about 20h30 on the watch. Another 10 minutes or so of run-walk before the finish came in sight. There was a hint of dawn coming up but made it across the line in the dark. My split from CH to the finish was 3h38h23 - the same time to the second as 2017 and 18 seconds slower 2015. 

A bit of weak finish but it was my second fastest 100 mile finish and in tougher conditions than 2020 so very happy overall. Unfortunately I didn't get to hang around at the finish for long. I had been here for hours back in 2020 so didn't want to overstay my welcome again. I collected my Henley drop bag and didn't have one from Goring due to my clever planning so was good to go. The first train wasn't until about 8am so I took the Oxford Tube back. 

I can highly recommend it - it was clean and comfortable and dropped me off near London Victoria. This would have been perfect normally but Victoria was closed so I had to get the tube over to London Bridge. Sadly the bus was slightly less clean afterwards as I had failed to bring a spare pair of shoes for the finish. Marco had also caught the Oxford tube so we made our way across London together. I didn't take any photos of the route so my only one is this comedy photo as we made our way down the stairs due to escalator maintenance.

Overall, I was happy with my race. It reinforces my belief that starting steadily is the way to do things. I didn't go off particularly fast but those 5 minutes I gained over the first 2 hours probably cost me overall. In 2020, I started off steadily and slowed down less than most but this year, my slowing down rate was about the same as everyone else. My best section that year was Goring to Clifton Hampden. This year it was the first 10 miles : / (Pangbourne to Wallingford was second best section this year)

However you don't know what you are capable of unless you try and I starting off at sub 9 minute miles isn't for me just yet. I gave it a good for 15 hours before tapering back my expectations. 

The staggered start was bad for me as I quite enjoyed overtaking people early on when I should have been more steady. Likewise I struggled to find people with similar pace to partner up with until the second half. Hopefully this was my last staggered start.

My aid station technique was excellent with only 38 minutes difference between Strava moving and elapsed times. In 2015, the gap was was 1hr 17 without the COVID protocols. Time lost in aid stations is very hard to recoup on the trail. I might even be able to get this down to below 30 minutes next time...

This was my third Top 40 placing - it was a few places off my 2020 performances but a lot better than my pre-COVID placings. I have hopefully improved from consistently ~23 hours finishes in the non-NDW races to more like 21 hours or below. Sub 21 in now my target rather than sub 24.

As always, thanks to James Elson, Nici, and the team for putting on a great race. Thanks to the amazing volunteers who made everything work in a COVID secure way, and to my fellow runners for keeping me company along the way.

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