This was always going to be a busy year, a year where I looked to train for and tackle the Centurion 100 Grand Slam. It was never going to be sensible to try to combine that and all the other things I had going on. I knew that from the outset, but I also recognise that there is never a perfect time to get these things done and that perfection is the enemy of good enough.
When I first started ultra running, I assumed that my first ultra would be my one and only long race. I didn’t imagine that I would be sucked into this community and that the desire to explore new opportunities would be so all consuming. Since completing my first 100, the Centurion Grand Slam has been staring at me, I knew after crossing that line on the first SDW100 that I had to come back and do all 4, I also started to recognise that there would never be a perfect time to get it done, that I just needed to get on with it. So this has been my 2018; training for and completing 4 x 100 milers alongside all the other bits and pieces of life, battling hamstring tendonopathy and meeting some of the most fabulous people I could hope to meet along the way.
It all started on a blisteringly hot day in May when the weather suddenly changed from a cold spring to a heatwave and I found myself on the start line of the Thames Path 100 for a 10.00hrs start. The start time is hugely relevant; SDW100 starts at 0600hrs so previously I would already have four hours running under my belt, the heat was also building up by the start making the first 25 miles far more uncomfortable than I would have liked. My plan was to run to 50 mile point then run / walk from there. I didn’t even manage 25 before the unrelenting flat and the heat bouncing off the trail and the river almost broke me. I staggered into Henley at 50 miles to be greeted by my Dad and two buddies from my massage course.
Brilliant support crew
I then just survived the final 50, hugely helped by Jodie my wonderful pacer. It was a brutal race. The hamstring tendonopathy had forced me to cut my training down to 3 runs per week so I was massively undertrained, a fall at about 30 miles caused something nasty behind my right knee and heat exhaustion was in full operation by about mile 35. The heat exhaustion was something which I managed to get through but the effects of it were obvious the next day when I found myself shivering, fully dressed under a winter duvet while the rest of the country basked in glorious May heat, I’m not too sure getting to that stage is all that good for anyone. All in all I would happily never ever see the Thames Path again. A flat course doesn’t equate an easy course and I found the lack of terrain variety combined with quite a lot of hard road underfoot made for a hard race. Not recommended for a first 100 miler certainly.
Jodie, life saving pacer
And so onto the South Downs Way 100. The nasty thing behind my knee meant that I was unable to straighten my knee or fully weight bear on it until a week before the race. The sensible thing was to drop out and heal. Supportive Husband, knowing what a complete pain in arse I am when I can’t achieve what I set out to achieve, told me that we are in our 40’s now and most things hurt when we run, that I should stop being so daft and get on with it. So there I was on the start line of my second 100 on what promised to be another hot day but at a far better time in the morning allowing us some cool running before the sun fully hit us. I flew around the first 50, I knew I was going too fast but I just didn’t care, I was loving it. I had a new support on my hurt knee which seemed to be holding me together and I was on a trail which I know and love. Then I got beyond 60 miles and my body refused to function normally, my usual nausea was with me, clearly I had my customary fall and my legs just wouldn’t work. The big downhills had taken their toll, I could hardly eat or drink and the early speed gave way to plodding. I realised that all was not well with the world and made the call to walk the last 15, later my kidneys showed me that it had been a pretty close call and, on reflection, my body was beginning to shut down towards the end of the race.
Once I had made that decision to walk,I was fine, I knew that I could get to the end but just hated the toll which it had taken on me. The knee brace had worked but had clearly restricted full movement of blood around my lower leg resulting in a massive bruise covering most of my shin, my hamstring was severely unhappy and my kidneys were crying. I love this race, but this iteration of it pushed me quite close to the edge and I needed to take a long hard look at myself. The South Downs has a special place for me, it makes for a good, albeit challenging entry level 100 miler and is very achievable for most people with a few Ultras under their belt.
Third race, North Downs Way 100, the one I had been dreading the most. Tales of steps, hard hills and tree roots lurking to trip unwary runners are often seen on ultra social media sites. None of this boded well for this undertrained runner who falls over easily. My foreboding was increased when my six year old kindly gifted me a vomiting bug the Monday before the race. So I changed tack, abandoned my ‘let’s just run and see how it goes’ tactic and arrived at this start line on another hot day with a bit of a plan. I would ignore the racing snakes and potter out, enjoy the scenery and the general chat of fellow runners and look to keep a constant pace throughout. I started the race assuming that this was going to be another epic, my legs were wobbly from vomiting a bit too much earlier in the week and I wasn’t really in the right frame of mind. How wrong could I have been.
It was a fabulous race. I didn’t perform particularly brilliantly but I loved it, every step of it, most importantly I felt a reconnection to the sport I love. Yes the trail was pretty tough, it was burning hot and nausea caught up with me like an omnipresent shadow. However the route was stunning, varied and interestingly challenging and I had company for large sections of it; fellow runners enjoying the same journey. My fabulous pacers who witnessed me slurring my words and muttering nonsense may not recognise my positive recollections but for me it was a totally different experience to the previous two races, it was nice to actually over take a few people. Many runners say that this is not a race for first time 100 milers and I’m not too sure that I agree, purely because I fell in love with the North Downs on this day. However, expectation management is key and people would do well to accept that it’s not an easy route and plan accordingly.
So glad to see Sarah 23 miles from the end!!
Before I knew it, it was October and we were all standing around for another 10am start, this time in Goring-on-Thames looking out at the lashing rain knowing that more was promised. There was a buzz around as the village hall as we all caught up with people we had shared the previous races with, knowing the Grand Slam was in reach. This race was always going to be different, four very separate out and back legs, no crews but a consistent gang of volunteers in Goring urging us on and I was very much looking forward to it.
The sections on the Thames Path were as painful as TP100 as first leg was fast and, on the way back, against a brick wall of wind. The final leg was nausea, nausea, a bit of vomiting and then slightly less nausea but I have blanked them from my mind. The middle two legs were glorious; beautiful trail, lovely views, warm sunshine and fantastic people to chat to. On the third leg I joined various groups of guys who pushed me and supported me in equal measures and was pure ultra running joy. I had wondered if I should have had a pacer at that stage but I didn’t need one (boy did I need Jim on the 4th leg pacing and pushing me but I was ok on leg 3). It was a great race and a worthy finale to the Slam.
If , like me 100 milers are staring at you then I recommend you extend those thoughts and go for the Grand Slam. It was, as ever, brilliantly organised but it was far more than just good races. It was made into an event, a triumph for everyone who stepped over the start line wrapped up by a huge sense of community. The volunteers on the check points looked after and cheered the guys at the back as much as the guys at the front; we were all winners in our own way. Coming second female over all in the Grand Slam made it all worth while for me and seeing Laura win first female was the icing on the cake as we had shared so much together.