Monday, 16 May 2016

TP100 - A volunteers perspective

Volunteering at the TP100.

The alarm went off at 1:30am and jumped out of bed with a spring in my step. Ok so lets not start this blog with a lie. The alarm went off i half opened my eyes, grunted, knock my phone off the side and then my wife pushed me out of the bed. With all that said once i was awake i was genuinely excited to make my way down towards Oxford. I had agreed to volunteer at the Thames Path 100 and was excited to be volunteering at Clifton Hampden Aid station (mile 85) and then to be sweeping the final 15 miles of the course. I have never swept a course before so there was some nerves there, but i knew that from my own experiences and battles i would be able to relate to the runners at the back of the pack. It would also be a good chance for me to stretch my legs with Grand Union Canal Race looming, plus a good recce before i revisit the Grandslam in 2017.

So after a quick coffee and ensuring i had all my kit i made my way out of the door a little after 2am. The beauty of this time of day is that the roads were quiet. It is always a strange concept to think that the runners had been going since 10am the previous days and for some the race was finished and yet for many there was a very very long way to go. Getting closer to Clifton Hampden the sleep demons took over and so i pulled over and got myself a very large cup of coffee. That was all i needed and rejuvenated and now properly awake i made my way on to Clifton Hampden. Upon my arrival the volunteer crew were in full swing. It was quite quiet when i arrived, but new that in the latter stages of the race there would be times where it resembled more a field hospital. It was cold outside and toasty warm inside; great for the volunteers, but bloody awful for the runners. Amongst the volunteers were Claire and Graham Smedley and Cat and Keith Simpson. It was a great opportunity to meet these people in person and not just from behind the mask of social media. Everyone else had already been going for hours, but still full of smiles. I found my way into their rythmn and we were off and running. Such is the community spirt that within minutes of being there i felt like i had been part of the crew for several hours. It wasn’t long before the first of many runners (arriving during my stint) walked through the door.

The spectrum of emotions on a 100 mile race is massive. We saw everyone of them at Clifton Hampden. Some runners charged in and charged out, happy but focused. We saw other runners struggling to stay positive, but willing to push on. We had injuries and we had people whose minds simply fell out of the game and they could not get back in it. Having ran the race in 2015 i remember arriving at this aid station cutting it close to the wire and in turning powering out the door. I now remember why. Runners who stayed too long became acutely aware of how much nicer it was to be warm and this in itself finished them off. It is always a huge priviledge to play a small part in other people’s races. The dedication and commitment needed to run a 100 miles is enormous and at mile 85 most people are approaching the need to draw on their reserves. One runner arrived at the aid station panicked he could not get home in under 24 hours. A previous 21hour 100 mile runner he had severely underestimated the challenge of a flat course and was running close to the wire. He could still have got under the time, but after 40 minutes walking up and down the hall he left the aid station only to return and then subsequently retire. After this there was a serious of runners who were spurred on by rounds of encouragement and positive vibes. I am very proud of the team and knowing we got several people back out the door who told us they were going to quit. They didnt and i later discovered that everyone who had said “i am done” and went on to leave our aid station did indeed get a buckle. This may have been more to do with the injection of caffeine we gave them, but hopefully our support also motivated them.

For me there were a couple of very special moments and one DNF that really got me. There was Steven who came into the station looking shattered and relatively unwell. We provided him a cup of coffee and he promptly fell asleep. After setting a timer on my phone i went to check on him and hand another cup of coffee to him. To my relief after he woke it appeared his head had got back in the game. He got up and left the aid station and powered on to the end. During my entire Saturday and then whilst at the aid station i had been tracking Mark Thornberry. I first met Mark at Beacons Ultra and have since ran along the Downs with him. Mark was in the grandslam, but had been struggling from the outset with knee and foot pain. Mark is a great guy with substantial determination, but i could see he was flagging. After a few hours between updates he trudged up the path to the aid station. I am sure he wont mind me saying that he looked a broken man. I could see that Mark’s mind was leaning towards a DNF. We set about a military operation that had been fine tuned with other runners. I sat Mark down, Claire got him a coffee and then we spoke about the issues. Mark told me he hurt and his feet were in bits. At this point the aid station was looking like a field hospital and it therefore seemed apt to get the “medi kit.” In this case some kinesio tape, padding and gauze. I removed Mark’s socks and expected to fined the feet falling of his ankles, but they were not too bad save for a couple of blisters. I think what had happened was Mark had bruised his feet. I taped up the blisters, covered his feet in padding, shoved his socks back on and basically told Mark to “sod off.” I didn’t want to see him again. The last reference being that i knew it would not be long before i would start sweeping the course. We went through a routine that was well established with other runners. I reminded Mark not to undervalue the short sections of running. 10 metres of running every 50 metres soon adds up. Mark ran out of the aid station looking determined. For all those who questioned their resolve and ability to finish let me tell you Mark finished. Mark has not been running Ultras all that long. Mark is in his mid 50’s. Being old is a state of mind and Mark’s attitude reminded me further of that on this day.

The drama was far from over. As we began to approach the cut off their were families crewing for wives, husbands, children, grandparents etc. A few times they told me that they did not think their runner could finish and what should they do. Mine and Graham’s response.... “LIE”. They will finish and even if there is a chance they don’t if you tell them your doubts then the DNF is likely to become inevitable. We had runners in great spirits, runners dead on their feet and one runner who looked like she was about to punch her pacer square in the face. Fatigue does strange things to people. The drama ramped up at about 7am when it looked like we were going to run out of coffee. An SOS call went out and thankfully as we counted down 4 cups left, 3 cups left.... 2 .... with literally one cup left coffee arrived at the aid station. Panic over we continued to support the runners. The sun was up and things were beginning to warm up.

Marc then arrived into the aid station with an enormous crew all determined for him to finish. His mind was gone and it seemed he had talked himself into a DNF. Claire and i tried to tag team and get him out the door. This had worked up to this point for no less than 7 or 8 runners, but not this time. He shared some deeply personal reasons for why he was running the race. These are not for me to share, but safe to say i know how much the DNF would hurt him the following day. Sat down for so long he perpetuated his own belief in not being able to finish as he siezed up. Marc’s friends came back into the hall to help him to the car. They had waited outside whilst we tried to convince him to carry on. Watching them carry their fallen friend out of the hall reminded me what i love about this sport. There is too much shit in this world, too much panic about our status and whether we are accepted, too much pressure of bills and survival rather than living. Well in the moments of a 100 mile race i find myself in a space where i feel most alive, the most free. As a volunteer watching these friends carry Marc to his car i felt that same sense of living and freedom. Humans are at their core inherently good and in challenges like this those characteristics rise to the top. Next time i am sure Marc’s friends will be lifting him onto their shoulders at the finish line.

With a matter of 20 minutes of so before the cut off Andy plodded up the path. He was with his wife and declared the infamous words “i’m done.” They were also met with the automatic response of “sod off.” I told him that he had to come into the hall and let us check he is ok first before we could take his number. This of course was a complete an utter lie. Both Claire and i could quickly see that Andy was far from done. We talked through the race and the fact he had “only” 15 miles to go. With discussions of the fact he was going to hurt tomorrow regardless and would he not rather this was with the sense of success and a buckle to show for it. A few minutes of pep talks and calculating the minutes per mile that were needed to average for a finish and we could see ... belief returning. I told him i would be sweeping and if i didnt think he could make it i wouldn’t let him go. After all if i got him there just after the cut off Nici Griffin and Natasha Fielden would kill me. I had guaged in this short moment that Andy just liked to be told how it was and his wife was clearly of the same mindset. So i decided to ask Andy a crucial question. He pepped himself to answer really seriously. The conversation went thus:

Dan: Does it hurt when you run
Andy: Yes
Dan: Does it hurt when you walk
Andy: Yes
Dan: Well fucking run then

At this point Andy burst into laughter and the dark cloud over his head evaporated, his words were “FUCK IT” and up he stood, went to change into cooler clothes and with 7 or 8 minutes left to cut off he was out the door. Andy had the perfect support from his wife who basically ranted postive thoughts at him and was no doubt far more instrumental in him carrying on than any of us at Clifton Hampden were.

So the time ticked down and i knew the second phase of my role was about to begin. I didnt think i would be as nervous as i was, but suddenly i felt a huge responsibility to the runnners and the race. I changed into my running kit and thanked my fellow aid station members and plodded along the route. It really was a glorious day and i was now feeling the priviledge of sweeping the final leg. I just hoped that those runners i had convinced could finish were not going to be found scattered along the path or dnf’d at a subsequent aid station. Stopping intermittently to remove tape and signs i was aware that the runners would have a little bit of time before i caught up to them. I was about 3 miles in when my bonus experience of the weekend occured. I stopped to take off a piece of tape from in a tree. Holding off from swearing about needing to climb through the stinging nettles as i saw a young child in ear shot. The child started asking me what i was doing. Keen to spread the word about our sport and the event i started to tell him all about the race. His father seemed genuinely interested and started asking all sorts of questions. He seemed very familiar, but i had only had 3 hours sleep. After a short conversation I politely said “you are Matthew Pinsent?” to which he politely said “i am.” I then did the very un-British thing of asking for a photograph and he kindly permitted. One of my sporting heroes and a British legend had just made my weekend. Of course at the end of the race when i recounted my chance meeting to Nici Griffin the response i got was “who?” Guess he should have won a 5th Olympic gold then he might have been more well known ;) Anyway i said goodbye and pressed on down the trail.

As i ran on along the trail i knew the last 15 miles are very runnable and i could see a runner in the distance. In my mind i thought it would be Andy I looked at my watch and did some calculations. Yep he was on track to finish, but it would be close. I got closer and quickly realised it was another runner and not Andy. Even better for him as he must have really sped up. I approached the runner who i later learnt was Garfield I asked him if he would like some company or whether he would like me to hang back. I was minded that a fresh running gently jogging next to you may be more disconcerting for some. He politely asked if i could hang back while he focused and so hang back i did. We plodded along the trail under glorious skies. I would keep an eye on my watch and the time that was ticking away, but Garfield kept a steady march on. I was very impressed by his relentless and consistent pace. I fell into a rythmn of hold back, stopping to collect some tape and/or rubbish (general public rubbish not runners) and then jog back to my holding distance. As we approached the mile 91 checkpoint i caught up to Garfield and told him what a great job he had done on pace and that at this rate he would make the finish. Simple maths is no ones strong point after 91 miles and so Garfield seemed assured of the gain he had made to the cut off time.

At the 91 mile checkpoint there was two runners contemplating dropping at mile 91. 91....91.... sod off!!! You dont have 9 miles left and flipping well drop; not without a very good reason and being tired is not a good reason. So Garfield marched out of the aid station a little bit before Chrissie had darted out of the aid station. Phil got to his feet in two minds. I told him that all he had to do was stick with me and we would get under the finish with time to spare. Phil agreed and on we plodded. I didn’t tell him at the time, but i was pretty nervous. I had encouraged him to get up and now was invested in his finish. We chatted a bit and Phil shared he had not finished a 100 miler before. I repeated that he would finish this one. Phil seemed less confident and truth be told at the pace we were moving we would finish in 28 hrs and 7 minutes. Simple maths is much easier with only 6 miles in your legs.

I decided to risk seriously pissing Phil off. I figured that he would thank me later even if he decided i was a dick. I started talking about not underestimating the importance of running even short distances and that when he wanted to start walking to just press a little more. We then also discussed walking with purpose. To Phil’s enormous credit he took this on board and his pace went up and he was moving with purpose. I kept drilling these thoughts home amongst our other conversations and the eta began to come down. We were on 28hours 3 minutes. Still not enough so i gave another push and suggested we chase downGarfield so that we could all run together. Phil pressed on and held some good running. We crossed over the lock and carried on towards the next checkpoint. With steady walk running the pace was still good... eta 28 hours 1 minute... Over the next mile Phil caught up to Garfield Who asked what pace he needed to be doing. I decided it was time for honest y and so i explained to them both they needed to keep pressing on.... eta 27hours 54 minutes... both were getting to a good place, but one bad mile and it could be blown. I knew that the next aid station was approaching and sure enough Mark who i had met last year, when i was the runner trying to avoid the cut offs, appeared. He was offering superb encouragement to the runners. I started prepping them to think about what they wanted from the aid station. They didnt have time to hang around a matter of 8 minutes and they would be timed out. Phil and Garfield were both getting that adrenalin kick that being so close to home brings. Both whizzed in and out of the aid station. I went to go with them and then the horror news that we were missing one runner... Chrissie. Damn it she had headed off just before us, but we had definitely not overtaken her. I tracked back through my mind and the only place she could have gone wrong was crossing over the river. As it later transpired she had gone straight on, rather than crossing the bridge, before realising her error. She arrived a matter of two minutes after the cut off time for the aid station. I was so impressed with the efforts of the centurion staff who tried to contact her on her phone. When we realised she was missing the military operation to locate her was intense. I could imagine Chrissie realising her error and trying to press on to get to the aid station. I am gutted for her that she could not make it and i am sure that she herself would have had that massive sense of frustration and blind panic. Sadly as well when an error occurs at that point the sweeper has removed the tape. I remember myself missing a turning in 2015 and only just getting back to a bridge before the sweeper removed the tape. I am sure Chrissie will be back to rectify the DNF.

Once the cut off time passed i pressed on down the trail. The lapse in time meant i had the chance to pick up the pace for about ¾ mile at 8minutes per mile. I could see that the rutted land of the previous year was in much better condition and i was pleased for the runners. Soon enough i could see the runners in the distance. They were being consistent and had built up some time again on the cut off. By my calculations they were on for a 27hr45min finish. Yep my 2015 finish time. I was nervous and excited for them and then very guilty for the stress i must have put my friends and family through the previous year... sorry. What was impressive was the support the runners were offering to each other to drive on over the last 4 miles.

I passed through the gate and caught them up. Phil and Garfield were now joined by Ian and they were pressing on. Phil and Garfield appeared to have replaced their self doubt with an all consumed sense of self belief. They pressed on with the walk run strategy. Sadly Ian was clearly grinding this out. I could see he was slowing, but he was too close at this point to be crossing the line behind schedule. So i started my “risk pissing him off tactic”, after all it had worked for Phil. At this point it was for the greater good. Ian was zoning out and in doing so slowing down. New calculation was a finish of 27hr 52. The pace was slowing and Ian’s head was dropping. I encouraged him to run where ever he could and Ian summoned up the energy to run, but with every run i could see him suffering a little more. 27hrs 56 would be our finish and i could not see a way to avoid this, but i knew that if Ian could just press for a little longer then he would have a safe finish. Come on Ian not too far to go. About 2.5 miles to go and we would be done. I reminded Ian he had come too far to time out. Estimated finish time had slipped to 28hrs 2mins. Shit i did not want to have to tell Ian this and then the question came, “how am i doing?” My response was not a lie, but i may not have been entirely honest in saying “Lets just be safe and press the pace a bit and expand our running.” Ian didn’t question me and i could see every running step was causing pain. I encouraged him to drink, but i think his brain was focused on one foot in front of the other. We were not too far now from the paved path. The sun was shining and plenty of people were out. Ian must have asked me four or five times how far to go. I knew we were close and in spite of his pain he was clawing time back. The clock would be close, but we would make it if Ian kept his walk run up. Then there was the bloody lovely bridge. I remember it well from my own Race and there in an act of deja vu was Drew. He told Ian just how close he was. It was a pleasure to see Ian’s family and they looked so relieved to see he would finish. I was tracking social media and could see Nici was counting down the runners left out on the field. Ian was the last one and knowing he would make it was a great feeling. Ian through his suffering got the honour of closing out the show. We had now grafted out the time and Ian could walk it in over the last few hundred metres. The clock ticked as we turned on to the grass. I stepped back and Ian broke in to a run to the finish and crossed with about 4 minutes to spare. A heroic effort and one i was chuffed to see. His spirit and determination will live with me for my own future races.

So that was the race finished. At the finish line i could see all the shattered but elated runners. Each and every one not regretting for a second the decision to get up and leave Clifton Hampden. Flipping heck was that really only 4 hours prior. It felt like days ago. I was about to catch up with Jon and Natasha Fielden and then i saw Andy, I had known him and his wife for a matter of 10 minutes of our lives and yet a hug seemed the only way to express our mutual joy for the guts he showed to stand up and be counted. Then through the crowd of runners i could see Mark. Such an emotional moment where he gave me a knowing look and just pointed. I pointed back at him and went over to share a hug, with a tear in my eye. I saw the pain this guy had been in and the challenge he had faced; A bloody heroic performance from Mark had seen him finish well under the cut off. I have every faith that this near miss will stand Mark in good stead for collecting his grandslam award. Wandering around the finish this was the first time i had been at the finish of a 100 miler and not been the one dead on my feet. I caught up with Phil and a few others who i had played a very small part in their days. I can say confidently that not a single one regretted carrying on and pressing to the finish. A firm reminder that even the darkest moments never last forever, but they make the triumph all the sweeter.

I absolutely loved the role i was given in this race and can say that to date this is the most fun i have had at a race. This includes the races where i have been running as a competitor. I looked forward to volunteering at the South Downs Way 100. The South Downs is the route i know the best and if i get the good fortune of sweeping again i would absolutely be thrilled to support runners in making it down “death gulley” and onto the infamous track. If you are running SDW100 and dont yet know what “Death Gulley” is well.... thats another adventure that waits to be told.