Saturday, 9 May 2015

Thames Path 100 - Puzzle Piece 1

 Thames Path 100 - The Grandslam Journey begins.

It seems a very distant memory that moment I thought about running the Centurion Grandslam and an equally distant memory when Zoe agreed. Yet after several months of working training into normal life I found myself only moments away from starting my greatest running challenge to date. Training had gone reasonably well and there were no reasons to believe that I could not cross the finish line in Oxford. Besides for a race like this you have to believe you are going to finish or you are beaten before you've started. What I hadn't anticipated standing at the start line was just how much of an epic journey this race would prove to be.

All my bags are packed and i'm ready to go....

I started a countdown clock to prevent any complacency and yet it still seemed like it went rapidly from 80 days to 30 days and then boom race day. I arrived the night before and stayed at a hotel with Sam Robson and our friend Nick. Nick was to be crewing Sam and so whilst they discussed meet up points I ran through in my mind the contents of drop bags and how I intended the race to play out. Having prepped my bags in advance there was very little left to do on that front. I instead thought about the race. My intention being to start off slow and try and keep an even pace throughout. There would be natural decrease in speed, but overall I wanted to see if slow and steady could win the race... Well not win, but... well you get the idea.

The lucky monster made by my boy.

On race day we headed to registration where it was as slick as ever an operation. The expectation on Centurion now is high and yet they seem to be able to get slicker. I love the 100 mile events they always seem to have a "Glastonbury for Runners" sense to them. A festival for runners spread over a weekend of pain and euphoria. Having run a few ultras I've got to know a lot of runners. Of course being rubbish with names I am them surprised to remind myself just how many people I know. At registration I caught up with many familiar faces. Drew Sheffield and James Adams were working on the pop up shop, whilst Gary Kiernan, Allan Rumbles and Matt Dunn were on kit check. Both Gary and Allan were pointing out that inevitably at some point we (the runners) were going to get very wet. Allan followed this up by very thoughtfully confirming he would think of us whilst having a pint.
With Kit Check done I lined up to get my race number. Granted I was initially in the wrong line until another friend David Barker said hello and directed me to the right line. We spoke about plans for the race. With David aiming for sub 17 this would likely be the only time I saw him over the weekend. I had the opportunity to meet Richard Stewart for the first time as well. He was looking ready to run a great time and again I didn't think i would see much of him over the race. A quick hug and hello with Nici and I had my race number. I swear that woman must cover more mileage than the runners over race weekend. I headed outside to dispatch my drop bags before the start. The slick registration process meant I had some more time to kill and so caught up with a few other runners. It was a great opportunity to catch up with Ultraboy (sorry I cant disclose his true identity) who I class as a good running friend since we shared a few hours on the SDW50 last year. After talking about are plans and build we both clearly had the same priority of making sure we finished. Everyone was in good spirits and you could feel the energy rising as the countdown to the start drew nearer and nearer. Wishing Sam Robson good luck I headed for the back of the pack. I didn't want to be drawn into a fast start only to burn out at mile 11. So some final catch ups with Bryan Webster, Rew Landells and Tim Lambert and we were ready.

Ready to race.

The Three Amigos.

James Elson gave his final remarks to the runners. As ever he reminded us to keep safe and that at some point we were going to get wet. My personal favourite though was the warning to all those running through Reading in fluorescent that they would be shouted at and so to run quicker. With all the remarks completed the countdown began... 10.... 9...... 3.2.1... and we were off.


The calm before the storm.
The race started fairly steady, following my intended pace plan. I was run walking from the outset. This was working well to preserve my Legs for as long as possible and so on I trudged. I say trudged as I was struggling to find a rhythm. It was feeling like it could be a long day, but running this distance before has taught me that emotions change rapidly over 100 miles. Before I knew it I was in to the first aid station. I tried to take on plenty of food. As I was leaving a runner was dropping due to illness. At this point I was very much near the back of the pack. My pace suggested that I was doing just fine. I decided to trust that and either everyone else was going to have storming runs or I'd gain places later on in the race. And into the breach I continued. The weather was proving at this point to be pretty much perfect for running. I seemed to be heading out still at a good pace, but just not in a rhythm. Was it the monotony of the flat? The time of day? The fact it was mostly path or packed trail to this point? I wasn't sure but I told myself to "shut up and run" and then it happened... I looked up to see... Well nothing actually. There was no Thames Path sign, no acorn sign and no bloody ticker tape. I hunted around for a bit and to the outside world probably looked like the crazy guy not to be trusted. I searched around trees, gates and fences. FFS where did I go wrong there was NO obvious turning and NO way I could miss it. Despite this instinct I have learnt well enough now that in a Centurion race if you have not seen a path sign or tape then it is YOU who is at fault. With this in mind I began the galling task of retracing my steps. In doing so I bumped into another runner who had made the same mistake. Well at least I wasn't on my own in that error. We jogged back along the path and suddenly... A bridge, a fucking great big bridge, a bridge only the blind and me could miss. Worse still right by this bridge was a lovely Thames Path Sign and just out of the corner of my eye was the tape, whistling in the wind and beckoning me to the steps of the bridge. So Staines your park was beautiful, but I will never remember you for anything other than that blue bridge (or was it green). 

I lost about 35/40min with this error and was kicking myself when as I crested the steps of the bridge I saw the sweeper below. He politely smiled and waved, but all I could think was "FUUUUCCCKK" and I took off like someone possessed. I didn't want to be caught by the sweeper and certainly not before the 2nd checkpoint. I overtook 2 runners and pressed on. Now of course this all sounds very dramatic , but the reality was I was well inside the cut offs. Yes I was near the back of the pack and that was why I saw the sweeper, but  not because of pace. With the race being so flat I think people tend to set off at a rapid rate (this may account for some of the subsequent drop outs). Despite this I was determined not to see the sweeper again.

I shuffled on wondering if this was going to be one of those races where I spend the largest portion on my own and grind out a result. I still had not found a rhythm and it was frustrating. So it was with these thoughts that I was delighted to arrive at aid station 2. I received frankly an undeserved heroes welcome from Fi McNellis and Natasha Fielden. With a massive hug from Fi and shouts of "Dan the man there you are" I started to perk up in my mind set. I went and grabbed some coke from inside and saw Mark Thornberry who topped up my water bottles. He is always smiling and his positive attitude washed over me. I spoke to a couple of others. One showed me his Grandslam buckle. Two things:

1. It's bloody massive.
2. It reminded me that I am only in the first quarter of my challenge.
These thoughts put everything into perspective and I left the aid station with a handful of fruit and Natasha's cry of "see you in Oxford". 

As I walked out of the aid station I thought about the enormity of what I am trying to achieve. Four 100 milers in 5 months. Today was more than just about today and I needed to preserve enough to be racing at SDW. It's no good dropping here over something stupid. No I needed to get on with the task and run. I phoned the wife and reassured her I was fine. I then got my head down and ran until i found some resemblance of a rhythm. In the build up to this rhythm I passed Tim Ellis who was out greeting runners. It's always nice to see friendly faces. My race really started to come together around the 30 mile mark. I was into my stride running every half mile and then walking 0.2 mile. It was getting me moving forward at a positive pace. The weather remained good and I was pressing on. I could feel my focus returning and my enjoyment of running had returned. I'd elected not to listen to any music and was enjoying the sounds of the birds and the rest of the wildlife. Oh and all the airplanes landing. I plodded through 30 miles and into 41 without too much event. Pace was good and I was feeling fine with my plan. The runners around me were not pulling away in spite of my walk run strategy. My enjoyment of the running also meant this all started to blur into one. I'm sure I caught up with Jon Fielden around this area as well, but this section of the race really had smudged in my mind. Save for one very comic moment... Running along the Thames Path I was into my full stride. I knew where I roughly was, but my focus was on crossing bridges and enjoying the view. As I crossed a bridge a family taking a stroll asked me if I was from the area. I said "no". They asked if I knew the way to Windsor. Now of course I bloody hope so given it was on my route. So I said yes and duly pointed them from where I  had just come. I plodded on and so did they, until I paused about 5 minutes later. "Doh" I was running to and no from Windsor. So sorry to that family and I hope they didn't walk too far under my direction.

Towards the end of this first section about a mile or so from Cookham I met a lady coming back the other way. I immediately was flashing back to Staines and that blue or green  bridge. I held firm in my confidence though that I had just seen a Thames Path sign. The lady (I didn't get her name) was panicking over getting lost. I plodded with her and passed on some reassuring words about following signs and tape and triple checking every crossing. The great strength of centurion is that if you have not seen a sign or tape for about a mile then you have probably gone wrong. Hopefully she finished as I didn't see her at all after 58.

Plodding out of mile 41 my right ankle was beginning to ache, but after this distance a slight ache is ok. Little did I know I would spend the rest of the race nursing my ankle, or more specifically my achilles. My focus was to get to 51 miles. I had a target time of 11:30, but nursing the ankle saw this drift back... And back. People I passed were now passing me and then I them. One lady (I forget her name) said I had made up time. I responded with "slow and steady" but I felt like my race was falling away. Up until this point I had been in control, even with the navigational error I felt I was managing my race. Running through fields It began to get dark. It became apparent that I would have to put my head torch on before half way. One of the couple's running only had one head torch on and as I passed they said "carry on we only have one working head torch between us". Not sure what happened for them, but I remember thinking that mandatory kit is two lights... What happened to your other three? I made the decision to walk the last 1.5 miles into Henley and rest my ankle. My mood was dropping and I was calculating my minutes per mile. I got myself into a better head space approaching Henley. My head torch is awesome. I'd set my battery on the petal nao to last 5hr30 and it was like I had a set of car headlights on my head. I have no idea what it would have been like on full power. It gave me confidence and as I came into Henley I ran into the aid station.

Embraced into a hug by Karen Webber and a quick catch up with James Adams lifted my mood. James told me that unfortunately Sam Robson had to drop. James went off to get my drop bag and out of the darkness came the moment that literally saved my race. My wife looking cute in her coat and hat. I chuckled at the contrast between her and me looking like a salty sweaty mess. Apparently I looked pretty good ( it's all relative I guess). I sat down and got changed into night/wet weather gear. I knew the forecast and elected to put on my waterproof trousers. How grateful I would be for this judgement call. After some hot food and a cup of coffee I was ready to go. I probably spent longer in this aid station than I intended, but it was essential. Big thanks to my brother in law for bringing my wife out to the aid station. I was feeling reenergised having chatted to them. My wife couldn't believe how bright my head torch was and decided (finally) that it was value for money :) As I left the aid station I looked around to see people starting to look broken. It may be a cliché, but this really was where the race began. Jeremy had arrived to sweep. He was early and I was under no pressure. I vowed not to see him again and left the aid station. So 13 hours down... 15 hours to get to the end.

Having seen my wife I left the aid station thinking about our children. I had my lucky sixspence in my bag. This was given to me for my first father's day by my boy. I had opened it at midnight on SDW100. This being one of my most treasured gifts I was determined to finish the race for the children. I want my children to grow up believing in magic and that nothing is impossible I hope these races are an example of that. Zoe and I had agreed not to drag the children to the finish, but nonetheless I would finish for them all. I had my monster still on my back and so with him for company we ploughed on into the night.
The rain came down in spells and it was clear my montane minimums jacket and trousers would do a cracking job. I was building momentum and ignoring the soreness of my ankle. I overtook a couple of runners and arrived at Reading. 58 miles done. Here there were a couple of runners looking broken. It seemed the drop rate was rising rapidly. Perhaps it was to do with the steps climbing into the aid station. For me this was a relief from the flat running and the muscles for climbing the stairs spoke to me like the neglected child. Keen to impress they bounded up the stairs. The welcome at Reading was a warm one and a chance to catch up with Paul Ali. He told me I was looking good. I'm sure this was a conspiracy between aid stations to perpetuate a lie. Susie Chan was going to have a selfie with monster (who was still in tact), but I forgot and was keen to get moving. Paul kindly threw me out of the aid station, reminding me to cross at the bridge. Just before the bridge I changed the battery in my torch. I didn't want anything to stop my momentum growing. The rain started coming down quite heavy as I negotiated my way out of Reading. My kit was doing a sterling job. I had taken my hat off to enjoy the rain. I only noticed just how bad the rain was when I ran my hand through my hair and it was soaked through, beyond this I was completely dry.

Reading Aid Station
By the time I arrived into 67 miles my ankle was struggling and I was having to be disciplined with a walk run strategy. I was growing in frustration, because all other parts of my body felt fine, but the mobility of my ankle was reducing. In and out of 67 I pressed on to 71 where I had a drop bag available. I took very little from it and pressed on. A runner asked to join me for a little. She was a little nervy of the upcoming section. I agreed and pressed on with my walk run strategy. The legs were getting heavier and I continued to do calculations in my head. I still had enough time to finish, but it was a lot closer than I would like. I had a grip on my plan, but it was potentially going to be close. By the 77.5 mile mark I was ok with exception of the ankle. A few more calculations and I knew I could still make it. The aid station crew were very encouraging and their positive comments had me racing out of the aid station. Then came the rain AGAIN, bloody rain. My kit was holding strong but footing at times was awkward. I was going slower than I would like and could feel my brain talking me out of a finish. It was ok though as the 85 mile aid station would be here soon... Wouldnt it??? The aid station seemed to take an age to arrive. My rational mind was failing me. As I arrived towards the diversion of the Thames Path to the aid station. 

A smiley crew member directed me whilst clutching her umbrella. I'm pretty sure runners must now be looking like drowned rats. Both aid station 71 and 85 looked like they were hosting some of the walking dead. Drop outs were rising further, but I had no intention of being one of them. Inside the 85 mile aid station I was hoping they might tell me that it was actually further on. Of course the reality though was that 85 was 85. I was told I had 25 minutes to leave the aid station. I confirmed I wouldn't need that long and turned and burned out of the aid station in under two minutes. Retracing back out of the aid station I was tired and angry. I didn't believe that I had enough time to finish. Mental images of being timed out as the sweeper tapped me on the shoulder ran through my mind. Once back on the Thames Path I called the wife. Holding back tears of frustration I told her it was going to be close. Zoe told me I was 25 minutes up on the cut off and I knew she was doing her best to motivate without sounding worried. I knew my ankle was struggling and now my knee on my left leg was sore as I was compensating for my right ankle. Whatever way you look at it this was going to be tough. I was upset that my Grandslam was going to be over before it begun. I did everything I could to push on with a positive walk run. I was trying to build a margin in case the ankle gave out. Everything seemed bleak. As it stood I was going to finish about 5 minutes outside that cut off. Damn it if only I hadn't gone wrong in Staines.
Just as all seemed lost I reset my thinking and decided to push. Maybe the next aid station would be closer than my watch was telling me. My brain just convinced me to push on with a good walk run strategy. So I pressed and pressed as hard as I could. For every metre under target pace I had a shot. I was not giving up on the Grandslam without a bloody good fight. A roar was building inside me and I pressed. Then the wonderful moment. Based on my watch I was a mile away from Abingdon, but there it was Abingdon aid station. In a blink of an eye I had regained 15-20minutes on the cut offs. I had been struggling to take on food. As I filled a water bottle with Pepsi one aid station member advised to fill half with water. Wow!!! This was like rocket fuel. With positive cheers and encouragement I pressed on. This race was now about the last 9 miles. So I pushed into a walk run routine and all the time keeping my mileage under 18 minutes per mile. The gap was holding at 20 minutes from the cut off. Perhaps I could do this? Perhaps? I called my wife to tell her I was giving it everything I possibly could. She told me that the children were actually with her as Finley had insisted on coming to see Daddy. I told them I loved them and see them soon. My promise now was to finish in time for Finley. He wouldn't understand why Daddy didn't get a buckle if I had been timed out and would be devastated.

The terrain was irritating and difficult for my ankle. I was slowing, but trying to suck up the pain and press forward. I would not have this ripped from me now. It still felt beyond me, but heck I was not letting this slip through my fingers, I would not be timed out and so on I pressed.

Approaching the next aid station I passed Kevin who was struggling badly. Despite this he told me I was looking good and to go get my buckle. Aid station members were with Kevin and told me I had plenty of time and to go for it. So on I pressed with my battle for the finish. I loaded up with my "rocket fuel" and pressed on. I was advised this section is always further than you think. A strange thing happened at this point I convinced myself there was another aid station to go. As time slipped away I had it in my head there was over three miles to go. Then it happened.... A sign saying "Oxford 2 miles". You beauty maybe I could finally relax. I turned to a fellow runner (Liz), who was completing her first 100 miler and just checked with her pacer that we had been through the final aid station. We exchanged names, but I forgot hers I'm afraid as she really became my impromptu pacer as well and pressed me on to the end. 

I crossed a bridge and joined the canal path to press for the finish with the clock still ticking. I was gaining places and yet somehow still was not sure I had it in the bag. At this point I approached a bridge and the sight of Drew Sheffield. Drew was exuberant with kudos and said "that bridge there is 0.8 miles to the finish and you have 30minutes." I swear that man has never been so beautiful. I pressed on and was given a reference point for how close I was to needing to turn into the finish straight. Every time I went to walk Liz's pacer shouted my name from behind me and told me to run, so I did. Then from over the crest of a small hill I saw the best sight so far... My wife. She looked relieved, delighted and a little surprised that I was so near to the finish. She told me Finley wanted to run with me and so ran back to tell him and others I was coming. And so with that I picked up the pace. I was not going to stop now. I turned into the field and there was the finish line. I picked up the pace for my usual Sprint, but this was no usual race. There he was my wonderful little boy. He saw me and shouted "daddy I run with you" with that he ran to me with open arms. So we held hands and ran the last 50 metres. The greatest 50 metres I have ever run. We crossed the line and I scooped him up for a hug. The one and only time I think when Nici didn't mind being the second hug. I hugged my wife and my daughter. The race was done. Nici gave my buckle to Finley to give to me and I was over the moon. The lion roar that I thought would come out across the line melted away to the awe of the event and the joy of seeing my family.

Finley is simply my little hero and true inspiration.
Not sure which of us had more fun.
So it was done. An eventful race and an emotional one. Interestingly though throughout the race I felt in control of my plan and my running. The sore ankle and wrong turn probably cost me 150 minutes or so in total. The key today was to finish and on to the next race. I will be seeing a physio before SDW100 and looking at options such as taping my ankle. If I can prevent these issues then SDW100 should be a great race. This Grandslam is going to be even more epic than I first imagined. I may be an emotional wreck by the end, but get there I will. For me I think TP100 with its 28 hour cut off and terrain  is harder than SDW. The pounding my joints took is not something that SDW tends to do... Famous last words.

My Amazing little family. Moments like these are why I run.
Finally I am touched by the responses I have had from the running community and I know from Zoe that she is far from the only one who was waiting for me to cross the line with anticipation. You are all an utter inspiration and thank you for your support. The Aid stations were great as ever and when it mattered set me up to kick on. I shall now be utilising "Rocket Fuel" from 50 miles onwards. To all the supportive strangers along the canal a massive thank you. To my wife and family a huge thank you. They were epic support throughout. Big kudos to Jon Fielden for his photograph and for the quality photographs produced by Stuart March. Some beautiful words post race from Natasha Fielden and the passion of Nici Griffin, James Elson, Drew Sheffield and many others has spurred me on to get this Grandslam. If I can do it anyone can.

So Grandslam part 1 done......

I just hope that family made it to Windsor!

Monster made it. see you at SDW

Achilles aftermath.

One down and four to go.

Love the new buckle.

My Monday recovery view

My Monday recovery view.

Final thought for all those running or aspiring to run an Ultra.

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