A Business management lecturer once told us that studying failure is a much more insightful way to learn about a subject than studying success…
This is a story of failure. A story which, hopefully will show you what you can’t achieve if you don’t prepare for a race of a distance that commands respect. If you want to know what not to do, dear reader, then please read on…
The story starts off a year ago. Running buddy Darren and I decided to man one of the aid stations for Centurion Runners for the A100, a 100 mile race based in Goring & Streatley in Oxfordshire. We enjoyed the experience of helping people on their way, and as a thank you, the organisers offer you a place in the following year’s event. After a little bit of arm twisting, I thought what the hell, let’s do it.
Fast forward 9 months or so. The lead up to the event wasn’t exactly the best in terms of training and preparation, and I knew I was taking a calculated risk. A litany of issues should have got me putting the kibosh on the whole endeavour, which included limited training in the two months immediately before the race, and a number of business trips during that time, one of which involved two 7-hour train journeys across France the week before the race. I could go on, but suffice to say I lived up to my blog moniker for this race!
I’d almost decided not to run it, and had it not been for a discussion at a pub a couple of weeks before that it was worth a punt. You never know, was the belief, you might have done enough.
So, it was with that approach that I sat on the train the afternoon before with Nick and Neil Dawson, fellow runners from the village to stay the night at the wonderful Streatley Youth Hostel. Perfect place to stay the night, a couple of minutes walk from race HQ (Goring village hall) and the station. We had a nice meal at the Bull next door, went for a walk in the village, then went to bed, having checked the weather. No rain expected until the early hours of Sunday morning. Excellent.
We awoke to rain. Hmm…
We had breakfast and met with a few other runners who’d used the Hostel. A level of nervous excitement was in the room. One Grandslammer (all four 100 mile races in one year), two first-timers (me and one other), and four seasoned ultra runners. All had their tales to tell, and their plans to achieve.
We decided to get ourselves to race HQ early, as advised. We got our kit checked and then our numbers, and were essentially sorted by 08:30. The race started at 10:00… 90 minutes to kill. It’s time like this when time seems to stand still. Having a chat with a fellow runner seemed as though we’d been discussing stuff for ages, and then you look down at your watch, and 3 minutes have passed! Nothing to do with the runners or the subject, you understand!
Eventually, after what seemed like an age, James Elson (race director) gave us the race briefing. As usual, he made his points clear, but with good humour. The weather forecast (although raining outside at the time) was mainly clear, but wind would pick up, with rain in the early hours of Sunday morning.
After the brief it was the walk to the start. I chatted with a few runners around getting their race plans and aspirations for the race. Then there were a few more nervous moments with a team hug with Nick & Neil, good luck wishes to everyone around, including Jay and Danny from Sussex Trail Events, and then klaxon went off. Then so did we!
The first part of the race is a route along the Thames from Goring, through Wallingford and Shillingham to turn around just near Little Wittenham and retrace your steps. The plan, what little there was of it was to run at about 11 minute miles to get the first leg done in around 4.5 -5 hours, and from there to run-walk the rest of the way. I started off pretty well, at the pace I’d planned. The first mile was a little stop-start due to bunching and the odd stile and gate here and there, then got into my stride from then on. I chatted with runners next me, and all was going well, ticking off the miles as I went.
All going well, we reached the first aid station at Wallingford, feeling good. I grazed quickly, filled up the bladder in the backpack and carried on. All good so far.
The terrain remained the same, although at certain points we were off the Thames tow path and onto quite a main road in Shillingford, then back down on the towpath to the turnaround point and aid station.
The aid station was basically a Luton van at the end of a path near Little Wittenham Church. The food was in the back of the van to prevent it from being blown away!
There was something not quite right though. In order to capture the full potential 28 hours of data I’d set my watch to a lower gps setting, which lowers its accuracy a little. The turnaround point was meant to be around 12.5 miles. My watch, however was showing a little under 11.4! I’d somehow lost a mile, so my arrival at the aid station was about a mile too soon. What’s more, my timing for the race was off. I’d reached the turn at closer to 10 minute mile-ing, than 11. Not good!
I drank, ate, and turned around and went back the way we came. I wasn’t concerned at that point, but lowered my pace a little.
We reached Wallingford, and I went into the aid station. At this point I’d realised I wasn’t keeping up with my SCap routine. I’d had one already and thought I should have another. Being 3 hours in, I would normally be on my third (one an hour), but I only started 90 minutes in. I resolved to go back to hourly SCaps.
At about 4 hours in, I knew I was struggling. My pace seemed to be okay, but there was something not right. Energy levels weren’t great, even though I’d eaten and was drinking regularly, so I was walking from about twenty miles. I was not alone – around half a dozen of us changed places backwards and forwards on the track from Wallingford to HQ, which couldn’t have come soon enough. I started to get a bit of a headache too.
I realised part of the problem was a tight I.T. band, which was giving me issues lifting up my right leg. I started to think this wasn’t going to be the best of ideas to turn up at the race.
I walk/ran the path back to HQ, where John Fitzgerald was outside. He asked how I was. Not good, and explained the situation. He urged me to continue on, just to think about each leg at a time, even down to the next aid station. This seemed rational although at the back of my mind, I still felt it was a tall order.
I stepped inside and sat at one of the chairs. Sarah Sawyer filled my backpack bladder and got me a tea. She also urged me to continue. I also saw a running couple I ran with at the Downland Challenge a few weeks previously and helped to get to the nearest train station afterward. Seeing them also lifted my spirits.
I sat on the chair momentarily, eyes closed trying to relax myself mentally, then got up, went to the gents to wash my face, and went back out on the trails.
It was a struggle, and it was clear it wasn’t going to get better. The only thing I could do was continue and try and nurse the I.T. band, with some walk/running. Every time the watch notched another mile, I ran for about 1/3 of a mile, then walked the rest, unless the leg was really not happy.
This did me well, and I started including some glute switching on exercises too, which seemed to help also.
At about 30 miles in, I met Jon Fielden walking the other way. Jon is a strong runner, and to see him clearly not racing any more was a little surprising. We exchanged experiences, wished each other well, and went on our way. In the back of my mind, a thought appeared: “If someone of Jon’s calibre can drop, then it’s okay for you to drop”. I countered that with “well if you don’t
I reached the next aid station at North Stoke, where I was greeted by Graham Carter, who welcomed me with a big smile and a hug. We shared a few words before I stepped inside, drank and ate, washed my face again, and left vowing to see him again later in the day.
However, as the time went on, it was clear it wasn’t going to happen. I got slower and slower, and although I was okay on the uphills, happily pushing my way up walking faster than others around me, on the flat and downhills, it wasn’t really happening.
Darren phoned me for a mid-second-leg-pep-talk. He was going to be my pacer for leg 3, so he was also checking to see how I was doing from that perspective. I explained how I was feeling. He was encouraging as usual, giving his experience from races he’d done which was helpful. We hung up and I soldiered on…
I realised during this period that my concentration on injury prevention had overshadowed my food and electrolyte intake. I can’t remember when I’d last had a salt tablet, and the headache was still there in the background. I was also concerned that I didn’t want to ‘overdose’ with these things, so didn’t want to take another so soon after taking one. I was completely unaware how many I’d had and when to be able to decide what to take and when.
I was joined for a while by Steve Illingworth, the Grandslam breakfaster from the Youth Hostel, and Vicky Thompson. Steve sat me down on a fallen trunk and had me stretching the IT band, which helped for a while, and I was grateful for the company. But eventually their pace was too much for me, and they dropped me shortly after.
I pushed on, wondering when the aid station at Swyncombe Church would arrive. Knowing that the miles on my watch weren’t accurate, I couldn’t be sure how far away I was.
The final straw came when I absolutely knew this was the end. Just before Swyncombe, there is a wood down the side of the valley which you go through to get to the aid station. I was warned of this by one of my breakfast companions Michelle, who’d just passed me on her way back. “That hill back out of the aid station is absolute hell!” she said.
I took to the hill, and the race ended at that point. Every step down the hill was agony. I could barely weight bear, and the jarring was making things worse. I struggled down, and up the other side, and met Neil from the Centurion team. He asked how I was and I told him I was done. He took my number. I sat down in the field where the aid station was, stretched, and waited for Darren to pick me up.
So, the usual questions.
What did I learn from this race?
- You can’t turn up to a race like this and just “wing it”. Mental preparation is important. A race of this magnitude is not to be taken lightly. It deserves respect, and conditioning is required to be able to achieve the distance.
- Fuelling isn’t something you can leave to chance on a race of this distance. I was clearly not paying enough attention to it, especially electrolytes.
- Other preparation is important. Clothing was all fine, but the technical stuff was off. I relied upon the watch to know where I am, so I should have checked its performance before trusting its accuracy. Alternatively, I should have learnt to go on feel!
- Listening to the body should have been more important than the hope of finishing.
- I gave myself too many get-out clauses. The urge to finish was strong, but I think I kept the DNF door open too wide!
- On a plus side, my shoes felt comfortable, I still have my toenails, and no blisters!
What did I like about the race?
- beautiful scenery. I want to go explore the area now.
- The birds on the way. So many Red Kites, calling to each other, hovering overhead.
- wonderfully organised, with helpful aid station teams.
- Wonderful race camaraderie. Our co-runners really care about each other. One big family!
- It was loops. It was great to see runners coming back, and when you reach the turning point it gave you an idea of the terrain you were going to face in the next dozen miles.
What didn’t I like about the race?
- Bit hot? Who’d have thought it would top 22 deg C on a mid-October day?
- That’s about it, really. Yes, I got injured, but that wasn’t the race’s fault! Mind you, nor is the weather really. Perhaps I’ll just say nothing…
- Not as many as you might think. The one and only regret was not pressing the self-preservation button sooner. Easy with hindsight I know, but dropping at HQ at the end of leg one would have been the best thing to do. But hope is a big motivator in spite of evidence. And I don’t blame anyone for urging me on, the decision to continue or otherwise is solely mine.
Would I do it again? Yes. Eventually. I need to consider the training plan before attempting it again though. And I will finish it.
But would I recommend it? Yes, absolutely.
To bring this to a close, writing this a week on, my reflection has changed a little from immediately after the race; but still the idea of me doing this race with the level of mental preparation wasn’t enough, and I’ve learnt a lot from the experience.
However, I’m extremely grateful to everyone who helped me on the day – Darren Chilcott who rescued me from the wilds of Oxfordshire and brought me back to HQ as well as being prepared to run with me on the third leg across the nasty ridge, my wife Sue who drove up prepared to pace me to the finish, John Fitzgerald for the words of encouragement and consolation when I returned to HQ, Neil and Nick Dawson for being great company, Steve, Vicky, Michelle, and many others I met on the road for their help, words of encouragement and stretching advice!
Until next time, I wish you all injury free running!