Tuesday 13 March 2012

Thames Path 100 Race Report

This weekend saw the inaugural running of the Thames Path 100, the first of four races arranged for this year in the UK by Centurion Running. The race follows the River Thames as it stretches from Richmond in London, all the way over to Oxford. This obviously offers several benefits as far as running 100 miles goes: Firstly, it's flat as hell with a grand total of 2,100 ft of elevation gain (most of which comes from bridges), and secondly, it's easy to follow (just stay as close to the river as possible without getting wet and you'll be fine). However, as we were all about to find out, there is no such thing as an easy 100 miler!

 Ready and raring to go at the start!

With a couple of weeks to go, I was feeling pretty darn good about this race. Despite a few issues, I had had a great run at the Pilgrim's Challenge, and had even gone so far as recceing the route. I had found all of the points where I would likely go wrong during the final 50 miles and had burnt them into my memory, and had another recce planned to check out the first 50 miles later in the week. I was feeling strong! I was feeling prepared! I was feeling like I was going to absolutely smash it!
I was feeling like a complete bloody idiot when, just over a week before the race kicked off, I skidded off my bike and landed heavily on my right hip. Crap.

Yes, with only a week to go, I had injured myself quite badly. As I later discovered, my back wheel had become loose when I came off on the ice in winter, and had kicked out as I attempted to turn a corner in wet conditions (luckily the lorry behind me was kind enough to stop while I peeled myself off the road and limped to the pavement). Right about now, I was wishing I was Wolverine (okay, okay, so I always wish I was Wolverine).

In place of a healing factor, I had the next best thing; a Chelsea. Chelsea is a great friend of ours, and also puts me together again when I fall apart. She has just started her own physio business, so I thought I would do my part to help her by providing her with a physio task - put me back together again in a week. So followed a week of intensive icing, prodding, poking, and ultra sounding. I attempted a little run on the Sunday before the race, and things didn't look good. More icing! More prodding! More poking! More ultra sound! Über sound even! Surprisingly the bruising went down and, whilst it ached a little, I was quietly confident about things. All systems were go!

I spent the evening wining (or was I whining...) and dining with the marvelous Mimi Anderson, discussing race strategy and how much our respective other halves have to put up with from us! After a surprisingly restful night's sleep, we were up and making our way to Richmond Old Town Hall to register. It was great to see so many familiar faces, and it was great fun chatting to people about their training. We lined up at the starting line just before 10am, with a few stragglers (most notably Batman and Robin, and birthday boy James Adams) joining us late having run the Richmond Park Run 5K beforehand. What a bunch of crazy mofos! Wish I had thought of it...

The horn went, and we were off! Bruce Moore, whom I had run with at the South Downs Way 100 last year, took off into the distance with everybody shouting for him to come back. One day, he might be able to keep the lead, but today it wasn't to be - I next saw him coming into the first aid station the wrong way having gotten lost at Hampton Court! I settled comfortably into the middle of the front pack, and we made our way through through the outskirts of London. We were hit by a light rain in the morning, but after that the sun came out and we were presented with a fantastic day for running!

I was a little worried about route finding as I was unable to recce the first half of the route due to my accident, but I ran with no real issues. I was glad that I managed to get myself into a position on my own so that I wasn't caught up in a "race" situation this early in proceedings. Also, whilst I am generally a very talkative person (some may say "too" talkative...), I actually prefer to race without chatting and just get on with my own thing. As we ran past Hampton Court Palace, we reached a busy road crossing where I was forced to stop and wait for the traffic lights to change. On the other side, I was caught up by Mimi, who had decided to ignore her original race plan completely and try and chase me down!

I broke away from Mimi and another runner and took off ahead again (so much for not racing...). A look at the pace showed that we had just run a sub 3:30:00 marathon - possibly too fast for a 100 miler? Nah! I was slowly catching the runner ahead of me around Staines, and as we went under the bridge I spotted the Centurion Running arrow pointing off away up and over the bridge. The runner ahead of me had missed this and was continuing to run along what had suddenly become the wrong side of the Thames. I shouted to get his attention, and was luckily able to get him back without having to run after him. He thanked me profusely, and we crossed over. As I was running across the bridge, I noticed that the runner behind me had also missed the sign. I shouted and gesticulated wildly, trying to get his attention. Luckily he turned (as did a lot of other people...) and I was able to get him to come back and get back on track. I wonder how many other people missed this turning, as it would mean running backwards a good mile or so to get back to the bridge when the path finally ran out on the North side. Not fun!

My race strategy was pretty basic; run as fast as I could (within reason) for the first half, with enough banked for the second half to get a good time. My "A" goal was a slightly unlikely finish of sub-16 hours, with a backup "B" goal of sub-18 hours, and an if all else fails "C" goal of sub-24 hours. I was carrying the bear minimum of kit, with only a handful of gels and a 500 ml bottle to last me between aid stations. Given how regular they were, I had reasoned that this would be fine. I had gloves, hat, headtorch, and a lightweight jacket, with additional clothing available to me at my dropbags in the last 50 miles in case I ran into problems. I was hoping to spend as little time at aid stations as possible, and eat only what I needed to keep going. A "speedy" 100 miler was my main aim.

Generally things went swimmingly in the first half, although I did run into a slight issue between Windsor and Cookham. I had forgotten to check the distance to the next checkpoint, but luckily a couple sitting on the bank told me there was only 2 miles to go. Unfortunately, they lied - there were more like 7 miles to go, and I hadn't rationed my drink very well. I managed to make 100 ml of GU Brew last, and was very relieved to finally come to the Cookham aid station. A refill, a downed bottle of water, an introduction to Mark Cockbain (who will be torturing me at the Viking Way Ultra next month) and I was off again!

I came into Henley on Thames in about 8 hours, meaning that my "A" goal was probably off the cards as an even-split was pretty unlikely. But I was feeling strong and ready for the second half. I replaced my Garmin, and pulled out my head torch, and was ready to head off again into the darkness. From here, I knew the route, so was pretty confident of navigation, but of course it was night-time now so there was still the possibility of running into issues.

I caught up with a couple of other runners up ahead, and started to overtake them. Coming to a fork in the road, I unfortunately took the wrong path, and had to make my way back towards the river across the field. Luckily, glow sticks along the route along with shouts from one of the other runners made this pretty simple, and I headed off again into the dark. I came storming into Reading, having run a particularly good split, and was feeling great. The lovely aid station workers informed me that I was currently in 8th position, with the 1st place runner a good few hours ahead of me. I was a little worried about the section through Reading, and there were plenty of undesirables hanging out by the river drinking White Lightning and smoking suspiciously fragrant substances. This was a great incentive to keep up the pace, and I ran through without making eye contact. Frankly I suspect they were too stoned to notice and thought I was some kind of UFO coming towards them...

Coming into Whitchurch, I approached a couple of marshals directing me up and over the bridge towards the town hall. Having recced the route, I knew exactly where the village hall was, so made my way straight there. This was the indoor aid station, and it was a little too nice going into the lovely warm hall. I was careful to be as quick as possible, so grabbed a quick refill and a piece of Mars Bar, said hi to Jo Kilkenny who was (wo)manning the station, and headed back out into the cold towards the only part of the route that can be described as "hilly". As I headed up, I saw a handful of lights coming towards me. "Alright lads, where did you come from?". Unfortunately, these three had run right past the checkpoint, and were on their way back to sign in. Doh! Suddenly I was in 5th place.

The path is quite hilly around here, and in particular there is a very steep downhill section that, especially in the dark after running almost 70 miles, required careful negotiation to avoid tripping on any roots. This of course is a bit of a quad killer. This section is very pleasant though, and I kept up a good pace through to the next aid station at Streatley where my last dropbag was. The weather at this stage seemed to be absolutely fine (although the temperature was dropping with the night), so I decided to stick to what I had and left my emergency supplies there. A quick refill, a rubbish attempt at drinking a Cup-A-Soup, and a little chat with Dick Kearn (of GUCR fame), and I was off for the final push.

About a mile from the checkpoint, I decided that I should probably make some attempt to keep the cold out, so stopped briefly to put my hat, gloves and wind-proof jacket on. I ran comfortably for a couple of miles, when all of a sudden my right hip really started to ache. This was the feeling that I had had when I attempted to run immediately after my bike accident. I could feel myself listing to one side, compensating for my bruised right hip by running mainly on my left. This then led to my left hip flexor starting to ache. My pace slowed down to a walk, and pretty soon walking became painful as well. My body cooled down, and my quads tightened immediately, giving me a waddle somewhat akin to a Barbie doll. In the distance I could see 3 headlamps making their way along the trail towards me. I had to think about what to do here.

Coming out into Moulsford, I came alongside of the A329. I weighed up my options, and made the very difficult decision to pull out of the race. My reasons were:
  1. My current predicament was due to a pre-existing injury rather than just overuse for the day (and I was frankly lucky to have gotten this far with no issues). Had I started at 100 %, I would have carried on and pushed through (as I did in the SDW100 last year)
  2. I was halfway between two checkpoints, 4 miles from each, and didn't fancy a 4 mile waddle
  3. I was in a position that would be very easy to find by the sweeper crews
  4. I had gear and provisions to last me to the next checkpoint - but only if I was running. Walking, I would get much colder and would likely not have enough water to get me there
  5. I have the Viking Way in 5 weeks, and decided to be sensible and avoid any permanent damage for the sake of finishing
  6. My aim for this particular race was speed (which was going well until then). When that was off the cards, finishing at the risk of being out of running for a long time didn't seem like a good plan
  7. I'm married to a physio and am afraid of being told off...
So I called the emergency number and arranged for a lift to Oxford, where my wonderful friend Peter met me and took me back to his for a lie down. I woke up on the Sunday morning with a lot of pain in my hip, but feeling surprisingly happy with how things had gone. Jen was worried I would be really upset, but I surprised myself by remaining very positive about things. In particular, I took the following away from the race:

  1. I was in fifth position when I pulled, and was on for a ~17 hour finish, so the race itself was going well
  2. My legs were feeling good even 75 miles into the race - I reckon I would have had the last 25 miles in me (of course a lot can happen in that time, and we'll never know what could have happened)
  3. My equipment choices and nutrition were spot on
  4. Other than my hip, I had no negative issues whatsoever from the race (no blisters, no chafing, no sugar crash, etc.)
So hey. No sub 17 hour 100 mile finish this time, but there's plenty more chances this year! A week on, and my hip is feeling much better, so I'm confident I made the right decision in not making things worse, and with only 4 weeks to go until the 147.8 mile Viking Way I'm confident I will make it to the start line!

The race itself was fantastic. James and his team really did put on a hell of an event, and I think that everybody agreed that the assistance that we runners received was second to none. Huge thanks go out to everybody that volunteered. The race was won by Craig Holgate in an astonishing debut 100 mile time of 15:11:15, and Mimi came through as first lady in a marvelous time of 18:50:30. 68 runners made it in before the 24 hour cut off for a special "100 miles, one day" buckle. Unfortunately, whilst I was asleep, the weather took a serious turn for the worse, and runners were subjected to freezing rain and even snow on the Sunday morning. Centurion Running had to make the very difficult decision to abandon the race after 26 hours, with some runners only a few miles away from the end. James has explained his decision here, and given the fact that runners were suffering from hypothermia, it seems to me that he absolutely made the right decision. Whilst I'm sure it is incredibly disappointing for those that were pulled so close to the end, I'm sure that they understand and support the decision. I guess that there really is no such thing as an easy 100 miler...

    1 comment:

    1. Well done Sam! It usually requires more strength to pull out rather than to foolishly carry on, but that was probably the right decision. There's no need to make things worse and jeopardise the rest of your season. or worse, expose yourself to the consequences of reason #7 :)

      I wish you a good recovery.


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