The Winter 100 was my first attempt at a hundred mile race. I had prepared well for it. Training had been really good. I’d lost some weight. I had a drop bag that would have fed, watered, clothed and probably sheltered a small family for at least a week (on the basis that they were all tall blokes), which I had access to every twenty five miles. I had the two most positive people I know to pace me for the last fifty miles. I had slept like a baby the night before. I was ready. What could possibly go wrong?
The Winter 100 is organised by Centurion Running and is based in Goring, a lovely village near Reading. The race consists of four spurs, two on the Thames Path (one and four) and the other two on the Ridgeway (two and three). I had recce’d the last fifty miles of the course and researched the first fifty so I had a good idea of what I was letting myself in for.
After registering early on Saturday morning, having a rather marvellous full English breakfast back at our hotel and listening to the race briefing, we wandered up the road to the start. The starting horn was blown and we were off. Only a hundred miles to go until the finish.
I had two goals for this race. My A goal was to finish in under 24 hours. My B goal was to finish within the 30 hour cut off. It was as simple as that.
Spur 1 – Goring to Little Wittenham and back (Thames Path)
I have virtually no memories of this spur. Apparently it took me just under four and a half hours but I remember virtually none of it. Short of being abducted by aliens during this section and having my memory wiped, I am not sure what happened here. All I remember is a lot of mud, some water (which I assume must have been the Thames), some big houses and a road called Jethro Tull Gardens that I ran past. I googled it after the race just to make sure my brain hadn’t completely lost it and the road does exist – they obviously have a very progressive attitude to naming roads in this part of the world. And it was flat. Very flat. Hardly a smell of a hill, let alone one to run up and down.
Spur 2 – Goring to Swyncombe Farm and back (Ridgeway)
I refuelled at race HQ in Goring and headed out on spur 2. Like all of spur 1, the first part of spur 2 was flat. Very flat. In hindsight this shouldn’t really have surprised me as there aren’t too many rivers that I know of that flow up or downhill and at this stage we were following the Thames. I’m not too much of a fan of flat usually and I live in Hastings, which is without doubt the hilliest seaside town in the world (apart from the seafront, which is flat but I hardly ever run on that). I’m used to hills and I’m not used to flat and I found this section very hard. I got to the aid station at North Stoke and had a good grumble about how flat the course was. The volunteers listened and humoured me until I shut up, had some food and left.
And soon after that thankfully a hill appeared. And another one. And yet another one. I figured out that I was now in Grim’s Ditch. This was lovely. It went mostly up with the odd down from there until the halfway point at Swyncombe Farm. A quick turnaround and I headed back onto the Ditch.
It was even more enjoyable in the other direction with now more down than up. It was damn good fun heading along the Ditch at (relative) speed as night was drawing in, leaping over tree roots as I went. I left putting on the head torch as long as I could as running through the Ditch at twilight was a magical experience.
Headlight on, I headed back to North Stoke in rather better spirits than I had left it. Not far until the end of spur 2 now. I was feeling great.
And then I hit that bloody flat section again.
I really should go back to that section some day and see if someone has left a ‘suck the joie de vivre from Jon’ device there. If they did then it worked. If they didn’t then something did. It was inexplicable. I went from feeling really good to feeling really crap. I know it was dark, but even so I really went downhill in that section. A joyful, easy run turned into a pissed off plod. I wasn’t enjoying myself.
And then Lady Gaga saved the day.
OK. I know this sounds weird but I will explain. I was thinking before the race about taking an iPod with me but in the end I didn’t. I then started thinking that some music would really help here and at that point a Lady Gaga song popped into my head. ‘Born this way’ came first and then ‘Hair’. For those not familiar with this song the lyrics are about being as free as your hair which, considering I have very little hair, is a trifle ironic. Anyway, ‘Hair’ was in my head and it wasn’t shifting. And I was starting to feel a bit better.
I looked around for other head torches. I couldn’t see any. ‘Oh well’ (or something similar) I thought and I started singing – loudly and tunelessly. And I started to feel a lot better. Energy was coming back and my mood was lightening. So off I ran, singing Lady Gaga songs, until I got back to Goring. Spur 2 done – thank you Lady G.
Spur 3 – Goring to Chain Hill and back (Ridgeway)
Back at HQ I met Susie, my pacer for spur 3. It was great to have some company. I had chatted to a few runners along the way but having a really good friend to run with at this stage was fantastic.
I hadn’t really eaten enough until this stage so I had some vegetable soup at HQ before heading out. This spur starts with a long uphill section so we walked up this and chatted. I still felt surprisingly good at this stage, having just run a 50 mile PB. We walked the ups and ran the downs for a bit until my stomach started to feel unusual. We then ran a bit until my stomach felt very unusual, then we stopped and walked a bit until it went back to just unusual. We repeated this process through Bury Downs aid station all the way to Chain Hill. It wasn’t pretty and it wasn’t pleasant but we were still going.
Chain Hill aid station appeared like a cross between an illegal rave and a low-flying UFO with a penchant for 70s disco lights. It was a lovely sight, but not as lovely a sight as the ginger cake they had there. It was the first thing I had wanted to eat for a long time and it was divine. Three pieces later (and a piece that Susie took along ‘for the road’) I was off and feeling much better. I started running again without discomfort. It was fantastic. I was moving again. Admittedly I wasn’t breaking the land speed record but I was moving.
We went through Bury Downs again and we were heading back to Goring. Susie was encouraging me, chatting to me and keeping my spirits high. Things were going really well. For the first time in a long time I looked at my watch and realised that sub-24 was on. Fuelled by ginger cake, I could do this.
And then my left knee started to hurt.
I have had trouble with my IT band on my left knee on and off for a long time. I knackered it completely when I ran my first half marathon years ago on no training. Since then it is fine for a bit then it is not so fine for a bit. I have tried various things over the years to sort it – acupuncture, custom made insoles, massage, strengthening – all with various degrees of success. I figured if anything could stop me finishing then this could do it.
It had been a bit grumbly (like me) earlier in the race but it wasn’t too bad. Now it was getting rather painful. We agreed I should walk a bit and then have another go at running. I walked – not too bad – then started running. Not good. It really hurt. I started walking again.
I talked it through with Susie. I decided that for as long as it felt fine to walk on then I could keep moving forward. I had bags of time. If I couldn’t run then a sub-24 finish was not going to happen but if I could keep walking I could still finish. It wouldn’t be pretty but I could do it. So we walked back to Goring.
Spur 4 – Goring to Reading and back (Thames Path)
We got back to Goring and I met Natasha, who would be pacing me on the final spur. We’ve been married for 14 years and there is nobody I would rather have pace me for this section than her. I wasn’t in a great place mentally at this point. I was in a good deal of pain and I had badly underestimated just how hard it would be. I sat down and had a little whinge to myself.
Thankfully at that stage James Adams and James Elson came over to listen to me whinge and helped put me straight. ‘It hurts’, I grumbled. ‘It’s hard’, I whinged. ‘I know’, they said. ‘It’s a hundred. It’s supposed to hurt.’
I wasn’t giving up. ‘But it really hurts and it’s really hard’. And neither were they. ‘It’s a hundred. It’s supposed to be really hard.’ I wasn’t going to win here so I accepted what they had to say, grabbed my walking poles from my drop bag and headed off with Natasha towards the bright lights of Reading.
We arrived at Whitchurch (the intermediate aid station on spur 4) having just passed a sign for an alpaca farm. We were both intrigued but had work to do so kept on until we got to the aid station. At the aid station we met Guy Travers, fresh from his own detour to the alpaca farm. We had a very surreal conversation with him about the alpacas, how one rides an alpaca and whether at this stage it would be possible to ‘borrow’ a couple of them and ride them to Reading. On balance we decided against it, partly because the consensus was that I would be a bit tall to ride an alpaca. It would likely also be frowned upon by the race organisers.
My last memory of this aid station is of Guy (obviously a man who understands black humour and irony) giving me a love heart that he had picked up here. It said ‘chase me’. A rather unlikely prospect in the circumstances.
We left Whitchurch and headed for Reading, thankfully without an alpaca. It was still dark and by now it felt like it had been dark forever. I really needed the boost that comes with the sunrise but I was not getting it. We walked through a housing estate. No sunrise. We passed the ‘Welcome to Reading’ sign. Still no sunrise and no Reading either that I could see. My feet and legs were becoming increasingly painful and I was really slowing down. I kept going. Slower and slower. It stayed resolutely dark.
It finally started to get light just before we reached the Reading aid station. The combination of sunlight, reaching the aid station, the most perfect lemon drizzle cake I have ever tasted (thank you so much whoever made that), a cup of tea and a visit to the toilet worked wonders. I was back in the game. We headed out of the aid station and back towards Goring. Twelve and a half miles to go.
Those twelve and a half miles were one of the rawest and most emotional experiences I have ever had. I was shattered. I am not the most emotional person around (I was brought up in Hull where emotions are generally seen as a bit effete and southern) but those twelve and a half miles were a constant struggle not to completely lose it. We were on the home straight but it was a very very long home straight.
We plodded on, away from Reading and back towards Goring and the finish. One foot in front of the other. Keep going. Hold it together. Don’t lose it. We can do this.
We made it back to Whitchurch. Cup of tea, seventies disco, piece of marble cake then head out. Don’t bother the alpacas. Every step forward was another step towards Goring and the finish. We can do this. Just keep going.
And then we were back by the side of the Thames and I knew we had less than a mile to go. It was getting harder and harder not to lose it now as it finally dawned on me that I was going to finish this. Natasha continued to encourage me, cajole me and keep me moving forward, as she had done throughout this spur. I could not have done this without her.
Finally, we saw the bridge. I knew this bridge led to the village hall in Goring. The finish. At this stage all the emotion that had been bubbling around me for the last twenty five miles came rampaging to the surface. I sobbed a bit to myself and kept moving. We got to the bridge, turned right for the village hall and saw Susie, who was waiting there for me to finish. I sobbed a bit more to myself. I hugged Susie and grabbed her hand in one hand and Natasha’s hand in the other and walked to the finish.
I did it. I finished. For a northern bloke I had done a pretty good job of getting in touch with my emotions – far more than I was expecting. I got my belt buckle and my t-shirt. I had done it. I had finished the W100. Me – the fat drunk. Now rather slimmer and sober. I had somehow run and walked a hundred miles.
I could not have done it without Susie and Natasha’s help and support. They were both amazing. They kept me going, they put up with my whinging and they were so positive and encouraging throughout.
The volunteers were incredible. Natasha and I have volunteered at several Centurion races over the years and I know how rewarding it is. The volunteers really do make your race so much easier with their encouragement, humour and kindness. And, of course, their cake which saved my race on various occasions. Thank you. You are all, every single one of you, incredible.
Thank you to James, Nici and everyone else at Centurion for putting on these fabulous races and for giving all the runners such a great experience. You guys are superb at what you do and you really care. It shows.
Before I started this race I really thought I was well prepared for the W100. I was in good shape. I had recce’d the course. I had read lots of race reports. I had read a lot of books and blogs about ultras and hundred mile races. I was ready. And then I started running and things started happening and I had to react and maybe I wasn’t quite as ready as I had thought. But somehow, with the help of a lot of people, I kept going.