A 100 miles is a very long way to run. But on this occasion it was time that beat me not distance. My plan had been to get to Henley at 51 miles in around 12 hours, leaving the possibility of walking it in from there in 16 hours to beat the total cut off of 28 hours. Up to 35 miles everything was going perfectly to plan – I was averaging just over 8 minute kilometres and doing quite a bit of running. It had been a beautiful day’s running, glorious sunshine showing off the River thames at its best. Riverside pubs roared their support as we went past – everybody seemed to know this event was taking place. Some of the trail markings were not very clear and I’d got lost a few times, costing valuable time and effort.
This was a very strong field and I found myself towards the back after the first few miles, but, in ultra marathon, you really compete against the course and your own time expectations, not the other runners. Indeed, people will always go out of their way to help another runner in difficulty and I like this attitude of co-operation.
When night falls on the river trail it’s a whole new ball game though. Suddenly, you have to watch your footing and focus on not missing trail markers, which often seem ambiguous. In total I reckon I got lost 7 times and had to retrace my steps to pick up the trail again.The idea of going backwards not forwards is psychologically very bad for an ultra runner, quite apart from the extra distance and lost time.
The worst thing about night time by the river though is the unbelievable cold, even at the end of April. And when you are already semi-exhausted this multiplies the effect of the cold many times over. I had cursed the organisers for insisting on warm waterproof jackets, but, I would have been in very serious trouble with anything less. I started to feel cold but didn’t react immediately because I didn’t want to stop to open my rucksack and get out hat and gloves. Soon I was forced to stop and do it because I started shivering and shaking uncontrollably. It took me forever to get my hat and gloves on because I was shaking so much. From that point on running became practically impossible due to the shivering and shaking and I was starting to feel weak and disorientated, staggering from side to side along the trail at times. I became aware for the first time of the dangers of ultra running – suffering and alone on the trail miles from help if anything went wrong. The miles got slower and slower and slower – the approach to Henley aid station seemed to go on forever. From 40-50 miles was practically all walking.
When I finally staggered in to the feed station and realised it was nearly midnight, I knew that it was too late. It had take me 14 hours instead of 12, leaving just 14 hours to get to Oxford. Nobody does a negative split (the second half faster than the first) in ultra marathon and i knew it would take me around 16 hours at least to get to the finish. The organisers kindly offered me a pacer to help me to the next aid station, but I knew I’d be pulled sooner or later, so it was a no brainer really – better to live to fight another day and the cold had really got to me. I was given a lift to my doorstep by the organisers so no complaints there.
There were some positive things to note though, despite not achieving the objective. Physically I was strong enough to do the distance and I had no injuries whatsoever. This I put down to the gym work I’d been doing to strengthen the glutes and core especially and my movement patterns are much better now. Also I met some great characters as usual, including one guy who had done the course the day before in the opposite direction and was now running back to Oxford again! Two hundred miles over the course of 2-3 days. Then there was the American who told me that he was running the Milton Keynes marathon on the day after finishing this one. Everybody just wanting to keep pushing their limits – a special breed.
What else did I learn? That there is no substitute in training for running long and hard and I just hadn’t done enough of this. I learnt that the cold is a killer and you need to anticipate this and act early to protect yourself otherwise you are really putting yourself in serious danger. Night time running is completely different and needs to be practised in training. Also it is well worth investing in one of the heavy duty head torches that most runners were wearing so you can see both the ground and the trail markers. You live and learn.
Armed with this knowledge, I am tempted to have another crack at this next year but we’ll see how it goes. I am aware that this kind of event does pose serious risks and who knows what internal stress to the body. However, without challenge life is pointless and you either go forwards or you start to go backwards instead. Why would you want to go through life without finding out what you are capable of?