Thursday 20 June 2019

Thames Path 100: Race report

Official race report and results: Click here 

I did the Thames Path 100 back in 2013 when it was held in March.  It’s now known in Centurion circles as the ‘flood-adapted route’.  As the description might suggest, the river had burst its banks and most of the path was underwater.  Leaving runners “unable to distinguish the difference between path and river and potentially be swept away  ... in a raging torrent.  To their ultimate untimely demise.  I paraphrase, but you get the gist.

Despite being one of  the last (wo)men standing that year - when it came down the survival of the most stupid -  it has always been unfinished business.  It’s not really the TP100, even if it was 100 (+4 for extra joy) miles on the Thames Path.  It’s like running from Milngavie to Tyndrum and back and calling it the WHW race.  

I always said I’d go back and repeat it on the full. Well, when I say always, I mean it took me a few years to recover from the mud and sheer torment.  But that’s how I found myself standing in Richmond on the banks of the River Thames with the goal to running the full distance to Oxford.

Richmond to Windsor: Keep your head, while everyone else is losing theirs

It’s a flat and fast start along hard-packed path.  The lethal cocktail of nerves, enthusiasm, ambition and bravado means the pace for the first few miles can be quite frantic. And somewhat futile.  I had to keep checking my watch and curtailing my pace.  Reminding myself that I had to run my own race. Not anyone else’s.

As always at the start of races, you share a few miles with different runners.  It was lovely to catch up the Ireland’s finest, Leanne Rive.  Who has an enviable race CV.  We were so involved in our chatter, we missed the steps and bridge turn off and were somewhat confused seeing runners on the other side of the water.  Lost at 4.5 miles.  Joy.  The course is well-marked so I vowed to be more vigilant, but when there is so much going on around it’s so easy to miss race markers.

Leanne disappeared into the distance and I caught up the Kat Short, who was on the side of the trail sorting out her shoes.  We got chatting about Manchester Marathon, which I had run four weeks before Thames Path.  My original plan for 2019 was to run the SDW50, but I swapped to run Manchester and TP100 instead.  The latter doubling up as a Western States qualifier too.  It will be my 4th time in the draw gives me around an 8% chance of getting a place in 2020 race.  Not hopeful, but they have to let me in eventually, right.

Before the first aid station at Walton on Thames at around 12 miles, a supporter out on the trail told me I was 8th female.  I smiled and thanked them, but was secretly irked by the unsolicited information.  I try to actively avoid any race updates. Especially in the early stages, as it can be so disheartening.  I often tell my crew I only want information on a need-to-know basis. Or when requested.   Marco and Cairn were on crew duty for the day, because I vowed to be quicker than last time.

All a bit uneventful for the next 15 miles.  Just ticking along, moving up a few places.  Trying not to lose my head.  I was toing and froing a bit with Dave from Aberdeen (who’s actually from Northern Ireland) Little did I know that we would spend the whole 100 miles within striking distance of each other and finish a few minutes apart. 

Heading into Windsor I had a chuckle at the space where the MASSIVE puddle from 2013 was. I was  told me I was 2nd lady, but I was pretty sure I was third. 

Met Marco briefly there picked up some fluid, waved at some people on a boat staring at me and went to go up steps onto the bridge.  For the love of god what happened to my legs?  30 flat and consistent miles and my legs couldn’t deal with the change in movement.  It was horrendous.  I have been suffering from a hamstring ‘niggle’ for a year now.  I say niggle because it’s never been bad enough not to run. 

Flat is certainly not easy.  It’s the same muscles and movement getting hammered over and over again for hours.  I’d say it’s much harder on the body, mind and feet than any undulating or hilly trails. Plus, at least with hilly routes you have an excuse to power hike (*cough* walk) and use your quads on the downhills.  Flat for me is just calves and hamstrings. 

Windsor to Reading:  You don’t know until you try

I ran with Jay for a bit, who I met out at Spartathlon.  He’d just run a sub-3 marathon in London six days before, which is an unorthodox tune-up session.  He was still in better spirits than me though.  I’d hit that “why the f*ck am I doing this” stage and my good friend nausea was starting to raise its ugly head.  I was being a crabbit and unsociable bitch.   My head was starting to go and all the negative thoughts were creeping.  I was trying hard to push them away.  Breath. Focus.

I just had to focus on breaking down the race.  Aid station to aid station.   When I arrived at the Dorney aid station, Ingrid Lid was there.  The teeny Norwegian is a bit of a rising star and was definitely the one beat in this race.  I was surprised to see her there, but moved straight though.  Soon I heard footsteps and caught Ingrid at the corner of my eye.  She attached herself to my heels and stayed there - for the best part of 10km.  I won’t say this didn’t unsettle me, because it did.  But way less than normal.  I wasn’t pacing her, she just wasn’t going to let me out of her sight.  Understandable. It’s not as if she’s going to drop back just because I’d quite like to win.

At Maidenhead stopped to get something from Marco.  Anything.  I just felt sick and was being moany and pretty negative.  I let Ingrid go and I didn’t care.  I wasn’t chasing and had to focus on sorting my shit out.    I pushed on through to Cookham, remembering this was the turnaround point (twice) for the 2013 edition.  Although I didn’t remember anything of the preceding 35 miles.  Well apart from it was considerably less muddy and there were people out on the path this time.

At Marlow, Marco met me with some ActiveRoot, which I’d forgotten I’d packed.  He was on the ball. I sat on a bench feeling sorry for myself, but the ginger drink made me feel better pretty quickly.    Onwards and through Marlow I was being super cautious following the 2.5 mile road diversion, in the pissing rain, before dropping back onto the parth.  In Hurley I saw Ingrid in the aid station, smiled, pushed on and made out I was having the BEST. TIME. EVER. Tactics, right.

The sun after the rain was stunning.  Steam was rising from the roof of the riverboats and it was the first time I thought: it’s actually not a bad place to run.  Yeah there’s a Thames.  And a path.  But there’s not anything significant and the scenery rarely changes.  There are certainly moments of magic and I tried to embrace every second of those moments.

Crossing some fields, I kept telling myself not to look back.  Never look back.  It’s like the guy in the war movie who looks at the photo of his love back home.  You know he’s a gonner. Looking back is showing weakness.  But I did use any bend in the path to have teeny wee peak out of the corner of my eye.

On to Henley – that half-way point - which seemed to take way longer than expected.   Walking in the tent, Marco was hissing in my ear about staying quiet and not saying a word.  He must have been really sick of my whining.  Turns out Alex Whearity was there waiting to buddy run with his wife, Wendy.  Marco was of course trying to restrain me from vocalising my distress to the opposition.  But, to be fair, I felt OK at that point.  The usually rollercoaster of ultrarunning.

The section from Henley is quite lovely.  Quaint riverside trails, with meadow-esque flora and fauna.  I still managed to miss a sign and got shouted back.  Thanks, James.  And in turn had to shout back another chap who was 400 metres down the road.

Reading to the Oxford: Don’t get comfortable

I felt rough AF when I got to Reading.  I had a lethal combination of Tailwind, Gu and ActiveRoot swirling around in my stomach.  When I met Marco, I stopped and promptly vomited - twice - outside the sports centre.  Which instantly made me feel better,  so off I went.  Happy in fact that I knew most of the route from there.  Once running the Winter 100, another from crewing Sharon at The Autumn 100 last year and in March II’d run the last 30 miles as a recce run. Having some awareness of my surroundings and doubting I’d go off course again, I felt comfortable switching on some musical distraction for the next 12 miles or so.

Things were starting to unravel by the time I got to Goring, as I hit an energy void and had pretty much stopped eating and drinking.  I was still moving ok - ish from Reading to Goring and got a boost seeing Dan and James with their musical renditions on the piano (surreal) at the aid station.  For the next seven miles to Wallingford I was f*cked.  There was nothing.  It was a really just jogging and taking annoying and unjustified walking breaks.  I struggled to keep my feet moving over the dried mud.  I was stumbling, tripping as not picking my feet up and the tussocky grass was so frustrating to run on and ankles kept tipping.  It wasn’t sore, just inconvenient.   I knew I’d slowed dramatically and was haemorrhaging time, but in my complacent mind I just assumed everyone was slowing at this point. Wrong.

At Wallingford I laid down in the carpark and asked Marco for some stats.  He duly informed me Ingrid was 18 minutes behind at the last timing point and Wendy was 20. Fuck! I was on my feet tout de suite.  I knew after my disastrous last section the gap would be MUCH closer. 

It was like flicking a switch.  I was out of there - but not before missing another turn and nearly heading over the bridge. I was energised. And focussed. They were closing, but I had to at least try.  I was basically running scared now, but with a new found energy and the kick up the arse I needed.  I didn’t feel sick anymore and there was no pain or fatigue in my legs.  The mind is a pretty wonderful thing.

Then a few miles on I missed the bridge turning again.  I kept going even though intuition was telling me I was wrong and should turn back.  I got to disused rusty gate covered in overgrown bushes. Fuck.  I got my phone out to check the map and confirmed I was way off.   Back-tracking I spotted the Ingrid disappearing over the bridge I’d just missed.  The bridge with the massive Centurion sign and arrow. 

I caught up with her again at the riverside in Benson.   We didn’t exchange much conversation, not because we were being antisocial but we were both pretty exhausted.  She ran on my heels for the six miles to Clifton Hampdon checkpoint.  I’m not sure if I was pacing or just there to open gates. 

We arrived at the checkpoint together.  I’m sure this was way more exciting for those dot watching than it was for either of us.  Marco threw a bottle at me, stuffed more gels in my pocket and chased me down the street.

I was on a mission.  Even with 12 years of ultra experience, I’m still learning so much about myself.  If you had told me about the situation of being caught at 88 miles before the race, I would have envisioned that I would have backed down.  Resigned myself to have been beaten.  Used my sickness as an excuse and bored everyone to death on social media with my tales of woe.  But f*ck that.  I was churning out all the heavy Goggins classics in my mind.  I read a race preview online on the train down that predicted I would come in second, at best.  I used that as fuel too. 

To break, I had to give it everything.  Don’t look back just go.  No music.  Just focus.  But maybe listen for footsteps and gates closing too.  There was silence.  Before Abingdon, I crossed a field and counted, calculating that it took me a couple of minutes to get to the other side.  I covered my headtorch with my hand and looked back.  No sign.

Arriving at the Abingdon checkpoint I was a little more relaxed.  Just keep moving.  One of the marshals asked me to leave with Dave and Darren as there was a boat owner (allegedly) threatening to throw runners in the water.  I suspect that story might have grown arms and legs.  I can only assume the marshall wanted me to protect the boys.  Marco even said I’d be fine to go myself. 

Nine miles to go.  Just break it down mile-by-mile I kept telling myself. I did my usual not eating or drinking because I thought I didn’t need it. Stupid ultra thinking.  I ran with the boys for a few miles.  My chat was shite and I was worried they felt they needed to look after me.  They really didn’t.  I run through the ghettos of Glasgow without blinking an eye.  I’m sure I could outrun an angry boat owner.

They arrived into Lower Radley a minute or so before  me and looked like they were settling in for the evening.  I exited and crossed the chip mat and was on my way.  It wasn’t long before I see the bobbing lights of head-torches appearing from behind.
On the gravel path I knew I was about two miles to the finish.  I used up my fight to break earlier and just kept chipping away.  I saw the lights from the buildings on the right side, so knew I was getting closer.  Left turn into the field and I crossed the finish line in 17:40.

A win is a win, right.  True.  But it’s not always about winning.  It was an hour slower than I wanted to be.  And if I’m honest with myself, I don’t think it’s a time or performance worthy of the race win. Hyper-critical, possibly, but it’s the reality. Got that monkey off my back. I wanted to win and finish top 10.  Plus, I got to run the full route.  Job done.  I’ve never really considered myself a very competitive person, so I was surprised by the way I responded.  If I’m still learning in races, I’m still progressing.  Thanks to Ingrid for this unearthing.  She's a feisty and tough one.  My favourite kind of gal. 

Thanks, as always, to James and team for putting on the best UK races.  I’m not just biased, it’s a fact.  To coach Pyllon for putting up with my erratic race schedule. And to Marco and Cairn for being the best crew ever.  The trip to the National Space Centre the next day was a freaking nightmare, but a fair compromise I think.   We can take comfort in the fact that I can't understand that geeky stuff even with a fresh brain anyway.

Race results 

1st: Ian Hammett 14:36:25
2nd: John Melbourne 14:58:46
3rd: Paul Beechey 15:48:19

1st Debbie Martin-Consani 17:40:08

2nd Ingrid Lid 17:48:25
3rd Wendy Whearity 18:26:12