The 100km race - September 30th 2012
30th September 2012
My first official 'ultramarathon' ended with a 3rd place (out of 1,500, albeit most walking) with a time of just over 12 hours. Always being a little competitive, I was a bit annoyed to find out the two guys 'ahead' of me, actually started 7 hours before me so did the whole run in the daylight!
Anyway, before I get too irate about running different races, I should probably explain what the event was! This race was the 'Thames Path Challenge', a 50km or 100km walk or run from Putney to Henley, an event I was very much up for running. Prior to the race, the organisers had asked that I go in the very last start time of 2pm, so that all of the checkpoints and finish line were set up and able to clock the runners in and out. Fair enough...
The shape of things to come
I was surprised when I turned up to find only a smattering of runners and a largely deserted start line (even the celebrity starter, 'Jet from Gladiators' had left). I asked the organisers where the promised '50 or so runners' (out of the 1500 participants) were... 'Oh, most of them opted to start earlier so they could run it in the daylight. In fact, a lot of the runners set off at 7am so they didn't have to overtake anyone'. Bastards. That isn't cricket... Certainly not what I had envisioned in terms of a race! Rueing my own stubbornness to sticking to rules, I set off along the river.
One challenge I have always had is tempering my competitive urges... in true style I set off at about 14kph, just to make sure the other guys leaving around the same time didn't run with me (am not a fan of running with others!). Anyway, I slowed down and got settled into a pace that felt ok, although my GPS told me that I had done the first half marathon (1 of 5!) in about 1 hour 50... probably a little too fast!
One thing I most definitely had not planned for was flooding. At the time I was running along the Thames, it was clearly a very high tide - so much so that whole sections of the Thames Path were under water. I came into Richmond only to find the path completely under water, forcing a situation all runners hate. Turning around and running back the way you came, and then having to find another, much longer route. Whilst an extra 2km on a 100km race may not sound much, it does put a dent in your motivation, especially as I knew the early runners in front of me will have been able to run straight past!
It wasn't until about 25km that I came across the back of the field, two walkers that unbelievably had set off 5 hours before me! I didn't fancy there chances of making it within the 30 hour cut off. I ran into the first checkpoint and flashed my race card only to get a message 'runner not found' on their iPad app. Very frustrating and something that delayed me at least 50 minutes across the whole race. In short, a screw up with the race number they had allocated me. I grabbed a handful of sweets, ate a slightly sweaty chicken sandwich and refilled my 3 litre hydration pack with some energy drink.
I was passing people all the time as I left the checkpoint, many of whom seemed quite baffled to see a runner hurtling past. However, I am not sure if it was the sports drink, the food or the fact that I had annoyingly forgotten my salt tablets, but it had been a while since I had felt this badly on a run... between km 30-50 I had debilitating stomach cramps - something I have never had before. I actually had to stop and bend over double on numerous occasions... frustrating as I otherwise felt fine. Crapping yourself on a run is never a good look, so I inevitably had to walk some of the way when the pain got too bad and hope that it dissipated.
Arriving at 50km, the sun had set and many of the people at the check point (a finish line for half of the participants) were celebrating, crying, lying on the ground. I however, was arguing with the officials who still were unable to check me in as they still hadn't resolved the issue with my race number. I was told they couldn't let me continue until they could check me in... I went for some hot food! It took at least 15 minutes before I was told they had checked me in. I ran to the end of the checkpoint to be checked out and guess what... 'runner not found'. At this stage, I told them to take a photo of me and deal with it in my absence.
If anyone has ever run a marathon (then another 10km), carrying your own gear, sat down for 20 minutes and then tried to get up and do exactly the same again, will probably have a sense of the pain in your legs... Feeling heavy, stiff and occasionally just locking up with cramp, I set off into the night with head torch.
Night time running through woodlands and fields is incredibly difficult, but also quite mesmerising. You can't judge the contours of the path and you can't see more than about 20 metres in front of you. You become engaged in an almost surreal battle, where you stumble, occasionally lose your way (on a few occasions I ended up in fields facing cows) but keep pushing forwards.
The final frontier
The field had really thinned out after 75km - I had passed almost 1500 people and ran the last 25km without seeing a single person. Each step becomes increasingly painful, hard to describe, but akin to someone hitting you in the leg with a sledgehammer every step you take and with each footfall feeling like you are running on hot coals.
After a certain level of pain, you start to feel almost euphoric, with all of your senses become dulled and a feeling of almost floating along, with the world moving around your body, not the other way around. Coming into the last 10km, I made a deal with myself that under no circumstances would I stop running. Having had to stop a few times due to climbing closed fences, getting lost, changing my iPod over (they only last 8 hours!), starting up again felt like moving a juggernaut. I actually had to build up momentum - looking at my watch, I started at a measly 7kph (almost walking pace), and watched as I pushed it up to 8, 8.5, 9, 9.3, 9.5... 10kph (a pace normally too slow even for a warm up a jog).
The last 5km were probably the best I have ever run. It was about 1.30am, the river and path was absolutely deserted, with a serene mist all around. The full moon meant that I didn't need my head torch (all it did was highlight the fog in front of) and I kept pushing down the path... still pretty slowly (by any standard), but I kept moving. Sensing the finish line, I figured I would cross the line in style and pace it as fast as I could. Quite unbelievably, I managed to comfortably get up to about 15kph for the last few minutes, annoyingly suggesting that despite the pain I could have pushed harder.
Finishing in 12 hours 20 minutes on the clock, I came third overall - something I should have been very happy with. Naturally, I was, but it didn't have the sense of elation I had perhaps hoped for. I felt I could have run harder. I knew I had lost a lot of time to admin issues, stomach cramps and flooding. I knew the two guys who finished ahead of me (one only by 33 seconds!) had set off 7 hours before me and ran in the day time...
Most of all, I knew this race was the first of many. I would be back, stronger, faster and fitter (and hopefully in significantly less pain)
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