Friday 8 January 2016

Autumn 100 Race Report - Going loopy

2015 was a funny old year, and unlike other years I haven't really been in training so much as just running. I don't really get the concept of 'junk miles' - I like running, so any time that I am out on the trails I am enjoying myself. I'm not really overly bothered whether or not this is the most efficient way to train, although I do always prefer to try and push myself. My routine has been thrown off a bit this year with a house move and a new dog to try and knacker out every day, but I'm keeping fit and getting plenty of running and cycling in. What I haven't been doing is any focussed training to try and get faster, something which I hope to address in 2016.

Free time seems to have been a very scarce commodity recently, hence my absence from social media and the lateness of publishing this. It has actually sat in my drafts folder since the day after the race, but I just kind of forgot about it! A recent article that I wrote for ULTRA magazine (a fantastic magazine which I am very proud to have been even a small part in, and a topic that is very close to my heart since taking on the epic job of being father to an awesome little girl whom I want to give every chance in life) took a lot of my free time so I decided to have a break and try to get into the habit of using my time more efficiently. I'm pretty bad at it, so I'm sure I'll be back to my usual loquacious self in no time...


I hit Thames Path 100 at the start of the year in pretty good shape - except for the unpleasant stomach bug that had hit me a couple of days prior. Yuck. So I failed in my Grand Slam bid before it had really begun which was a bit of a bugger. "Fine, let's try again at South Downs Way 100 then", I thought. But by then I was trying to run faster than my training would really allow. And it showed. Frankly I just got bored with my own whinging so pulled out to avoid sullying the race for the people that were there giving it everything that they had. So really since then I've taken a step back to get back into the swing of just chilling out and enjoying the experience. The North Downs Way 100 was a very good example of this, as I started right at the back of the field and then had a lovely time making my way to Wye, even going so far as taking in a couple of naps along the way. It's the only way to travel.

This brings us to the Autumn 100, the final "hundro" in the Centurion Running Grand Slam. The setup is very tight, centered around a checkpoint in Goring with four 25 mile loops (12.5 miles out and back) along the Ridgeway and the Thames Path like a big cross. In previous years, this has been held later in the year as the Winter 100, but this year had been pushed forward to try and avoid the horrendous weather that had dogged it in the past. Whilst I have never run this race before, I have experienced it in previous years as the Piece of String Fun Run took in much of the same route (plus the little detour to Bath in the second edition). But this year the weather was pretty much perfect, with an overcast but dry outlook for the day and night.

In the past, making plans for these things has resulted in it all going to pot, so I stuck to my standard "plan" of running stupid and went in pretty much blind except for what I knew from previous PoS races. No pacing plan, no nutrition plan ("eat" was as far as I got), no walking plan - just got on with it really. I probably should have planned ahead a little bit and at least arranged somewhere to stay, but I managed to sort this out a day before race day with minimal fuss. I stayed in the Reading Premier Inn, and caught up with Rich Stewart and Bryan Webster for a meal at TFI Friday. I couldn't bring myself to have a dessert, but when Bryan's came I was really regretting that.

The race itself started at a nice leisurely time of 10am, meaning a nice lie in and a pretty chilled out morning. Well, it would if my body clock wasn't set to wake me up at 5am every day. Oh well, I guess I got to catch up on some reading. And it meant that I got to have a nice big fry up for breakfast as well, so I can't complain. One thing that has really dogged me pretty much since my gorgeous daughter was born is tiredness - I just can't stay awake like I used to, I guess because I am still trying to catch up on sleep after the first 2 years of perpetual wakedness. It was particularly noticeable at NDW100, although that wasn't helped by a terrible night's sleep just before the race. At least now I was well rested and well fed, but the late start did make me wonder if the sleep demons would creep in early.

We arrived at race HQ to the usual military style operation of kit check, waiver signing, and number assignment. The usual suspects were around, and as usual it was great to catch up with people that I only really get a chance to see a couple of times a year. I have been trying to ween myself off of social media recently, mainly by deleting the apps off of my phone, so haven't even been able to catch up with what everybody has been doing. Apparently I had missed a big surprise - that James Elson would be running his own race today. Even he didn't really know what he was going to do, whether he was going to race and push the pace, or just relax and enjoy the wonderful Centurion experience that he gives to others. But it is a huge compliment to the rest of the Centurion crew that he felt that he could take himself away and leave his baby in their (more than capable) care.

We lined up at the start, with James giving everybody his usual spiel about not going out too fast (well of course he would say that if he was racing...). Stuart March was hounding me while I tried to hide away from his seemingly ever-present camera. I really don't photograph well, and even he made a point of commenting on my squinty eyes. A bit harsh, but I'll let him off; it's true after all. I caught up with Dan Park who had only just returned from America, and hadn't even transitioned to GMT yet - possibly a bonus, but we would see! He was feeling good, and while he had injured himself at NDW100 putting an end to his Grand Slam bid, he was feeling strong and ready having recently taken up Eddie Sutton as a running coach.

The horn went and we were off along the Thames Path. I was careful not to head off with the front pack, as I am not nearly fit enough to be racing at the sharp end at the moment. Maybe the pommel. But I kept up a pretty good pace and was happy to switch off, enjoy the morning, and listen to some podcasts. I have just started listening to a film podcast called Now Playing, which does a good job of dissecting and over-analysing movies that I love - something that I love to do, much to my wife's consternation. It's good to know that other people share my views on Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors though (best in the series if you were wondering).

I wasn't too far back on the front runners when we approached the turnaround, but I was surprised to see course record holder Ed Catmur in second at this stage. He usually sets a blistering pace at the start, so whether he was holding back or others were on a similar suicidal bent I couldn't say. James was high up in the rankings, so it was good to see him ignoring his own advice. He had a huge grin on his face, and was clearly enjoying the full Centurion experience.

I had made a decision not to rush today at the aid stations. I know that at the NDW I wasted a huge amount of time just hanging around at the checkpoints, but in all honesty I was in no hurry today and was quite happy to just enjoy my experience. Also, after my experiences at the Thames Path earlier in the year I was also careful to top up my bottles at every opportunity. After a quick refill, I grabbed a handful of fruit and made off for the return journey.

The structure of the race was really nice as it meant that we got to pass everybody on the return journey and see how our friends were getting on. The only problem is, I "know" a lot of people without really knowing them. I am awful at remembering names and faces. Add into that the fact that there are a lot of Twitter/Facebook people where I don't necessarily even know what they look like (stupid non-descriptive profile pics), and you have a series of slightly awkward interactions where I desperately try and remember if we're good friends or not. Let me say this now - it really is nothing personal! My brain is just awful at social interactions. But it was good to see that Dan was running well with Bryan, and they both seemed to be enjoying themselves.

I made it back to Goring in pretty good time, 25 minutes behind the front runner but actually faster than I expected. I grabbed a tea and refilled my bottles ready for the next stage along the Ridgeway. I know this section well from the Piece of String Fun Run, and after a bit of running along the river it soon heads off into a more interesting section through the woods. A bit of undulation was a nice change from the slightly monotonous river-side running, and this was the section where I pulled out of the second Piece of String - only 10 miles from the finish after already running here from Bath. Grr.

But there were no issues today, and I made it out to the golf club feeling very happy. The race leader headed past me coming down the hill, and I wasn't too surprised to see that it was James. He had a big grin on his face, and seemed to be having a great time. His recent race results have shown that he is amongst the upper echelons of UK ultra runners, and he only seems to be getting better. All while being one of the top Race Directors in this country, and possibly the nicest, most humble guy you'll meet. #mancrush

After heading through a fun wooded downhill section (which probably wasn't going to be as much fun on the way back up), the path cut directly through a wide open field which was just asking for a childish aeroplane impression. Nyeeerm!

(Wow, it really is difficult spelling the onomatopoeic sound that an aeroplane makes...)

I thought that I remembered the checkpoint at the end of this section being in a hall in the middle of a little town centre, so I was very surprised when I found it in a tent in the middle of a field. It's always nice when the checkpoint is closer than you think. There was a kid there holding up a sign with a big "power" button drawn on it, which said "hit here for a Power Up". Good lad! I bet he made a lot of people's day. After high fiving him, getting my power up, and grabbing a face-full of fruit, I was back on my way heading back to Goring. The route is quite narrow, making it a bit of a squeeze when heading past the other runners, but luckily ultra runners are generally a pretty friendly and accommodating bunch so it was all very "after you", "no, no, after you I insist". Of course the sensible way of determining right of way is, "whoever is currently barrelling uncontrollably down the hill". Again it was great to see how everybody else was getting on, and generally everybody seemed to be in good spirits.

I got back to Goring again, this time making sure to swap my lighter head torch out for my Petzl Nao, ready for the sun going down in the next section. Again, this was a section that I knew well from the Piece of String, as we ran it several times in the inaugural race way back when. It took a lot of the thought out of it and I knew exactly where I was going. It is probably the most interesting section of the whole course, with plenty of hills and some very exposed areas. I remembered having to fight against some incredibly strong winds, but that didn't seem to be the case today. It was dark now, but not too cold as long as I was moving.

I came to the corner which I remembered well as the point where I stopped in Paul Rowlinson's car for a little nap after about 30 hours of running on the Piece of String. Ah memories! As it happened, I was only about 10 Km from the end, but of course I didn't know that at the time. It was worth doing though, because I went from stumbling around like a zombie to running on fresh legs with just a little 20 minute snooze. It's a trick that has helped me in a few longer races, and I have never had a problem getting going again afterwards. I could see lights coming towards me, as James and his pacer Paddy Robbins ran past at an incredible pace - I was still a couple of miles away from the midpoint checkpoint, and he was only a few miles away from the final leg. He was having a great day and I figured was easily on for a 15ish hour finish.

I wasn't going quite that well, but was feeling happy and enjoying myself. However, I started to have a bit of trouble with a stitch. It was annoying me, as it meant that I was struggling to run as fast as I wanted. I wasn't too fussed from a finishing time perspective, but it did mean that I was getting a little colder than I really wanted. I tried putting my jacket on to be on the safe side, but then I found that I was far too warm. Stupid thermoregulation. It was annoying me as my legs were fine and I just really wanted to open things out a bit and get cracking. But there's not much you can do about stitches other than hold back and let it work itself out. Sigh.

As I ran under the A34, I remembered the very first Piece of String. This was the first section, and some of us thought that it may have been the end of the race, so there was a bit of a sprint finish to Bury Downs. As I headed up the hill today, I saw the lights up ahead and headed straight over - only to find a group of what I assume where Duke of Edinburgh teenagers giving me funny looks.

Me: "Erm, I guess this isn't the aid station then?"
Da kidz: "Y'wot m8?!"
Me: "Erm, sorry. Init. Word."

Yeah, I'm down with the kids.

I headed into the actual aid station and grabbed a cup of tea as I tried to let my stitch settle down a bit. Sarah Burns-Morwood headed back the other way, comfortably in the lead in the women's race (and about fifth overall) and looking very comfortable. I headed on to the turnaround point at Chain Hill but in all honesty this section was a bit of a slog. I spent a little bit of time at the checkpoint, just letting things settle down. I did manage to avoid falling asleep though, so there's that. At least on the way back it was more downhill, so I was hoping that I could get going properly again.

Heading past all of the other runners, I couldn't make out who anybody was so relied on relatively open-ended shouts of "keep going" and "looking good" style comments. Somehow other people didn't seem to have that problem, and lots of people seemed to spot me quite easily. Do my sideburns glow in the dark?!

As I got down the last hill and hit the road, there were a few miles to go before Goring, but I was feeling good again. My stomach was settling down (largely because I had stopped eating for a bit) and I was starting to pick things up again. I caught up with quite a few other runners and was just happy to be running properly again. Back into Goring for the last time, I refilled everything, grabbed my spare torch battery, and sat down for a bit of a chinwag and some soup. 

Nici Griffin, the Centurion Army's den mother and general boss (despite what James might think), seemed to be chastising me for hanging around and trying to shuffle me out of the door. So off I went, out on the final section of the race, back along the Thames Path towards Reading. Again, this is a section that I know well, although to be fair it's not like it's particularly complicated. Follow the river, if you fall in you've gone wrong. Easy.

The first section is a little more hilly than you might imagine a river path would be (I live in Cambridge okay?! This is hilly for me), but it at least keeps it a bit more interesting. The checkpoint at Whitchurch crept up on me quicker than I expected, and I was enjoying the music on the radio so much that I got told off for hanging around for too long. Meh, I was in no hurry and who doesn't love a bit of AC/DC? As I headed down the hill towards the meadows, I followed the path away from the road into the churchyard. However, it wasn't well signposted here and I came across Dave Ross who had accidentally gone into a private drive instead of past the church. We buddied up down towards the meadow, and chatted about his recent packed schedule including Badwater and the Stagecoach 100 miler only 2 weeks earlier. He was feeling the miles today though and seemed to be struggling to get going.

I was getting a bit chilly, so wished him luck and headed off again. I was feeling great now and was picking up the pace more and more. I came into Reading, passing the Premier Inn where I had stayed the night before, and made my way over to the Kennet and Avon Canal towards the rowing club where the aid station was situated. On the way I bumped into Melissa Arkinstall who was running her first hundred miler and seemed to be killing it in third place for the women's race. We chatted on the way to the checkpoint, which again jumped out on me earlier than I expected. I spent longer here than I should have done, but for no real reason. I was feeling good, I wasn't falling asleep which was a nice surprise, I was just quite happy having a cup of tea and biding my time before heading back.

With 12 miles left until the end, I was feeling absolutely fine. I’m not going to pretend like I was dropping 6 minute miles or anything, but it felt like I was running really well and it felt good. It was nice to just be able to Let It Go (I’ve watched that film far too many times) and run. I only really had one issue, as my head torch battery ran out just as I arrived at the Whitchurch checkpoint. Bugger. I had used a fully charged battery from Goring, but had used the higher setting on the torch thinking that 100% charge would easily last me 5 hours. I was wrong. Luckily I had my spare torch, but it is not as bright and so the final 4 miles were a little more treacherous than I had anticipated. Luckily it was quite a bright evening, and I have pretty good night vision so there were no issues.

I started picking up the pace here knowing that I was pretty much done. I managed a nice sprint finish along the last river section, heading up the ramp, and into the hall. All done in 18:29:20. I was happy with this as it was actually a lot better than I thought I would do, but at the same time I felt so fresh at the end that I wondered why I had been slacking so much all day. Now I know that this is a good time for running 100 miles, but with these things it’s all about whether or not you feel that you have done your best. This was not my best, and so there is a part of me that feels like I should have tried harder. But that’s fine, as today was not really about racing, and it is actually a really good sign to me that I was able to finish in a good time despite not feeling my fittest. The other side to this is that if I had tried harder I may not have felt as good later in the race as I did. The third leg could definitely have gone better after all.

However, all told the pacing went pretty well. I don’t normally bother looking at checkpoint times and analysing my own performance beyond how I feel, but I was interested to see how badly leg 3 had gone. The first leg took about 3:30, second leg was slower at 4:20, third leg was significantly slower again at 5:15, and then the final leg was a little slower again at 5:20. So as expected leg 3 was a pretty big drop, but there wasn’t much more of a drop for the final leg. It’s funny as I thought that the last section was faster, but it just goes to show how different things can feel 90 miles into a race; suddenly 12 minute miles feel like a sprint!

After a slightly inauspicious start to the year, these last two races were all about finding the love again and just enjoying the running. And I most definitely achieved that at the Autumn 100. I had a blast, and happily had no issues to show from it - no aches, no pains, no blisters, no rubbing anywhere (usually the post-race shower immediately highlights any unexpected chaffing locations with a vengeance). I had a little kip in the back room, hopped on a train home, and spent the rest of the day playing with my little girl. I was back to my usual routine of running 5-10 Km with the dog followed by cycling 16 miles to work on Monday. Thank goodness for my Wolverine healing factor.

James went on to win the men's race in a pretty phenomenal time of 14:35:40 - a new course record. As James pointed out, the previous course record was set under much worse conditions at a different time of the year, but there is no doubt that 14:35:40 for 100 miles is a world class time, and I expect big things from him at the next Western States! Chris Brookman was second in a similarly fantastic time of 15:06:53, with Duncan Oakes taking third in 15:19:29. 

The women's race was won by Sarah Morwood in 16:13:58, obliterating her previous course record, coming 4th overall in the rankings,  and setting what I think might be the fastest female 100 mile time at a Centurion race. Second was Sally Ford in 18:11:31, making this the first 100 miler she hasn't won this year which is a pretty impressive collection of trophies! Third was Melissa Arkinstall, who I was really pleased didn't just finish her first 100 miler, but did it in a fantastic time to boot.

These times are well outside of my abilities, but I love that they keep getting faster. And I think that they will get faster still in years to come, as people see how hard they can push themselves.

So that's really it for 2015. I'll probably do a bit of an end of 2015/start of 2016 post in the next few days as I get back into the swing of blogging. I should probably think about doing some races this year then...

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