It’s mile 51 & I’m having a one-woman sit-down protest. I’m sitting on the grass by the river in Henley refusing to move.
I’ve spent the previous ten miles listing all of the reasons why I’m stopping.
It’s too hot.
My legs hurt.
I’ve fallen behind my target & so won’t hit my goal, therefore I’ve failed.
I feel sick.
My stomach hurts.
I’m not enjoying it.
It’s not fun.
I don’t want to do it anymore.
The list goes on.
I thought it would be easy to stop. I was going to sit down, tell Nikki I was done, take my number off & go home. I’d already decided what I was going to have for dinner.
What I hadn’t counted on were friends who refused to listen.
Friends who wouldn’t take no for an answer.
Friends who picked me up, pinned my race number back on my shorts & pushed me on.
Friends who, at that moment in time, believed in me more than I believed in myself.
The Thames Path isn’t the glorious story that I wanted it to be. It is not a story of a joyful scamper along the river. Rather it’s a bittersweet story of self-doubt, tears & temper tantrums.
9:30am as the sun shone down on us I stood on the start line with 287 other intrepid souls. I was quietly confident. I had had one of the best training blocks ever; everything, and I mean everything, had gone to plan. I felt fit, strong & ready to see what I could do with 100 miles along the Thames Path.
The day was already warm as we crowded around James the Centurion Running RD for the pre-race briefing. There was an excited buzz of nervous anticipation in the air. This was the return to mass race starts that we had all missed over the c*vid years. Standing side by side with friends & fellow runners, waiting for the starting klaxon to sound.
As we counted down, I said goodbye to Kerry, Dan, Paul & Jaco & I made my way nearer to the front of the crowd to avoid getting caught up in the early melee. I switched off from those around me, oblivious now to who was next to, in front, or behind me. I was focusing on one thing & one thing only; the path ahead.
I had a goal for the Thames Path 100.
A big goal.
A scary goal.
I’d questioned it many, many times leading up to the race. Was it realistic, was it possible, was it really achievable? Could I, an average runner in her 40s, really run a race like that? I was stretching myself way outside of my comfort zone. I knew that in order to achieve my goal, everything on race day had to align. I needed to be aggressive & run with confidence right from the start.
My philosophy going into any race is that I never know what I am capable of if I don’t try.
Sometimes I may fail, but sometimes I may just fly.
At 9:30am it was already warm. Unusually warm. The sky was blue & cloudless; the sun blazed down on us in all its glory. I usually run okay in the heat; NDW100 in 2020 was a testament to this. But the preceding weeks have been chilly & there has been no real opportunity to acclimatise & this worries me. I’m sweating before the race even starts.
The path is crowded during the early miles as we settle into our groove. The day is full of promise & potential. People sprint past me & it’s hard not to get caught up with their enthusiasm. I let them go.
My plan is to start easy & keep my heart rate (HR) in zone one for as long as possible. From my training, I know I can get around 50km before it starts creeping up & I know roughly what pace on the flat this should equate to.
But the best-laid plans & all that…
From the onset my HR is high, flirting with low zone two in the first couple of miles. I find myself stressing over it, which in turn exasperates it further. I know that the heat is a factor, but this is not normal.
I ease off. My HR drops but my pace also slows. In training, I was comfortably running a 9:15 min/mile pace in zone one. Today, the 9:30 pace is pushing my HR towards zone three.
I have an internal debate. An argument with myself.
Do I keep my HR low, allow my pace to drop & fall behind target this early on? Or, do I stay with the target pace & let my HR creep up?
I go with pace. My ego won’t let me fall behind target at this early stage.
In hindsight, this was the wrong decision & I’m kicking myself. I know better than this. I got caught up in the pressure of having a goal that I wanted to hit & forgot to keep my eyes on the big picture.
I train & run to HR for a reason & I know for me it works but in the heat of the moment (quite literally) I lost all sensibility & this was to be my downfall.
The first 20 or so miles wind their way along the river out of London & into the Home Counties. Starting in Richmond we’re already some miles from the city but there is still a very London feel to the riverside. Families, couples & groups of friends bask on sunny restaurant terraces enjoying a leisurely weekend coffee. Rowers are out on the water, their coaches barking instructions at them from the river bank.
With it being a short train ride from home, I know this section of the path well. It’s a route I often run when I want a flat respite from my usual hills.
Perhaps the hardest part of this race for me was the changes I had to make to my training. I’m a big believer in training specificity. The Thames Path is flat & so I needed to train on the flat.
I abandoned my favoured hilly trails of the North & South Downs for endless flat miles along the Waterlink Way & Wandle Trail, with brief forays onto the Thames Path when time allowed. I pounded pavements instead of splashing through mud. I ran laps of fields rather than reps of hills. I wore out a pair of road shoes as my trails lay gathering dust.
Normally I run in tune with the ebbs & flows of the hills. The rolling ups & downs allow for a natural change in intensity. The inclines give a natural walk break, a chance to take stock & take on fuel. The descents a chance to fly with ease. I like hills. I run well on hills.
Without this natural rhythm, I settled into a 28:2 run-walk schedule. Run for 28 minutes, walk for two. The two minutes are a chance to pause, mentally check in & eat. Like with HR, it’s how I’ve trained for the past four months & I adopt the same strategy right from the start today.
Onto Teddington, a quick high-five with Krysia who I ran some of last year’s SDW100 with. Kingston, past the hustle & bustle of the busy riverside restaurant quarter on a Saturday morning. Over Kingston Bridge, the first of many river crossings. Past the grand Hampton Court Palace. Another bridge. Walton, a cheer from Rik the RD from the track race I did in March as preparation for the TP.
It was that race that made me think that maybe, just maybe my 100-mile goal was achievable.
I wanted to run a sub-20 hour 100 miles.
There, I’ve said it. The goal I kept quiet throughout the training block & onto the start line.
My goal was to run the Thames Path 100 in under 20 hours.
Knowing what we know now, you may ask was this realistic?
I ran a very unexpected 21:18 at the hilly SDW100 last June, finishing the fourth lady. At Phoenix Runnings 12 hour track race in March, I ran 50 miles in 7 hours 56 minutes. A whopping 54 minute PB.
True, I will happily agree that track is a completely different scenario to a towpath, pavement or muddy trail so is it really a good gauge of ability?
I’d entered the track race to prepare my mind & body for the mundanenesses of flat jogging. I ran with a strict pacing strategy; easy HR zone one for the first 25 miles then up the intensity. Alongside the 50 mile PB, I went through marathon distance in 4:10 & scored an official 50km PB of 4:52.
A few weeks later I equalled my three-year 5km PB. Whilst running 5km at 6:50 pace is a completely different scenario to running 100 miles at 12 min/mile pace it indicated that I was the fittest & strongest I had been for a very long time.
I knew I was in good shape & I believed that a sub-20 hour 100 miler was well within my capabilities. For the final two months of my training block, everything was geared towards this.
Back to Walton, 11 or so miles in. We cross the river again & wind our way through the streets of Shepperton. This section up to Staines is one of my least favourite stretches. Apart from some pretty ostentatious houses, it’s just all a little bit, well, boring. It’s also where I begin to struggle.
The riverside is open with very little shade & the midday heat is oppressive. Occasional bouts of coolness when the sun flirts with a cloud are not enough to bring respite. The relentless warmth is draining & I feel my energy slipping away. And along with it my enthusiasm & confidence.
Through Staines & onto check point two (CP2) at Wraysbury where the lovely Ella hands me a banana. I intentionally skipped through CP1 at Walton & here I pause only briefly to refill my water bottles.
Ella had asked in the Centurion Facebook group if anyone had any special requests for CP2. I asked for bananas, knowing that they are one of the few foods I manage to eat during an ultra. As soon as I walk into Wraysbury she calls out “Ally, I have your banana!”.
The volunteers throughout the whole race from the start line to the finish line were, as always, incredible. They simply cannot do enough for us, from filling bottles to preparing food. And always with a smile, even in the dark depth of night & cool chilliness of the early morning.
From Wraysbury, we pass the site of the 1215 Magna Carta, still an important symbol of liberty today & onto Windsor, home of her royal majesty. The Thames is a river with an illustrious past & rich in history as it winds its way from the source in Gloucestershire to the estuary some 184 miles later.
Running in the shadow of the imposing Windsor Castle I begin to feel as if I am operating on auto. It’s taking everything I have to simply keep moving & in frustration I take extra unscheduled walk breaks. All I want to do is stop & sit down.
I switch from listening to podcasts to music in the hope that the energy of some ‘old skool dance classics’ may get me going again…
By CP3 at Dorney, I have slipped five minutes behind on my pacing strategy. Five minutes is nothing over the course of 20 hours. I know this, I tell myself this, but yet unwanted doubts silently slide into my previously strong mind. If I am finding it this hard at 30 miles, how I am going to keep going for another 70?
A hug from Zoe as she sends me on my way with a banana & words of reassurance. She tells me everyone is finding the heat hard work. I take some, perhaps selfish, comfort from this. I am not alone in my struggles.
On the trail towards Maidenhead, metaphorical storm clouds are gathering at speed over my head darkening my mood further & further as I fall deeper into a pit of self-doubt & self-pity. Every single step is an effort that I don’t want to make.
My pace has fallen so far off target that I don’t even want to look at it anymore & I know, only one third into the race, that I won’t finish in 20 hours.
If I finish at all. I berate myself for my weakness, my perceived failure. The words I silently speak to myself are not kind.
I remember very little from this stretch of the race. It took everything I had to keep moving. I paid no attention to the path or my surroundings. I could have been anywhere, by any river, in any town, any country. I simply don’t remember.
As a photographer, I always take photos whilst running. I’m known on social media as @PhotoGirlRuns.
Photography is how I communicate. It’s a powerful way of connecting people, telling stories, creating emotion & capturing memories. I love looking at photos I’ve taken & being transported back to that moment in time. Remembering where I was, what I was doing, who I was with. I hear the sounds again, I remember the conversations, I feel the emotions.
I do this whilst running. My snaps remind me of my runs.
Knowing my tendency for perfection, for taking an excessive amount of time to make sure that the composition & lighting for a photo is ‘just right’, I set out today with the intention of limiting my photo taking. I did not want to miss my 20 hour time goal because I was waiting for the sun to move so that the lighting was perfect for a photo.
I do this. All the time. And for a zero pressure training jog, it is totally worth waiting & getting it right. But not today. Once things start to unravel, you could argue I had more flexibility to take photos. However, such was my funk, I simply could not be bothered to take my phone out of my pocket.
I took four photos during the whole race and this is now one of my biggest regrets because I now have no way of remembering those parts of the race that have slipped from my mind. No photo to trigger a memory. No photo to transport me back to that path.
Many of the photos you see here were taken by Jaco Swart who very graciously has let me borrow them otherwise this post would be a whole lot of words & no pictures.
Coming out of CP4 at Cookham I text Nikki.
“Ridiculously hot. Heat is draining. Am pulling back on plan to try & conserve some energy.”
I try to put a positive spin on it. I don’t want her to know quite how bad I am feeling. A few minutes later I text again.
“I’m not sure I can do this”.
Nikki is crewing me for the second half of the race. The plan was that she would meet me at mile 58 in Reading with Jon (aka JayZ) my first pacer.
I planned to run straight through Henley, CP6 & push onto CP7 at Reading. Henley is the official halfway stop & the first location crews can meet runners but psychologically I wanted to get past halfway before my pacers joined me. This tactic worked well for me on the NDW & SDW so I saw no reason to change it on the Thames Path.
Nikki immediately replies saying they’ll reroute & meet me at Henley with some ice & cold drinks. This is still some 12 to 13 miles away but I feel a small sense of relief. I am boosted because I think it is giving me a way out. If they are there, I can stop at Henley.
Through the small town of Marlow. On my recce run, I somehow went wrong here & ended up on the other side of the river. The correct side is much prettier although also very busy on a warm spring afternoon. I pass through a small park & look longingly at the kids running around with giant ice creams, their parents lazing on picnic blankets with cool glasses of drink.
Over another bridge & just after Hurley the trail turns away from the river & winds up through parkland. A runner in front of me points out a herd of white deer grazing to our left. It’s here I take three of my four photos. Not of the deer, of the river.
I see the Church spire in the distance & I’m now on a countdown to Henley. To stopping.
A row of smart marquees interspersed with banks of seating line the towpath into town. The signs tell me they’re getting ready for the upcoming Henley Regatta. I wonder how it would feel to have the stands full of people cheering us along our way.
I see a couple dressed to the nines arrive at one of the riverside pubs by boat, sailing up & ‘parking’ at the moorings outside. It feels like I have entered a completely different world to the one I left in Richmond some nine hours earlier.
So back to that patch of grass in Henley. I’m 50 minutes late arriving.
I sit down & tell Nikki & JayZ that I’m done. I’m stopping.
Nikki hands me a Callippo & some fizzy orange. I don’t hear her response. All I know is it’s not the supportive one I was hoping for. I am wrapped in a self-absorbed blanket of pity, knowing that I have failed. I am oblivious to what she is saying.
Stu, Spencer, Helen & Keith, Kerry’s crew & pacers wander over. SJ, Paul’s wife pops up. There are other faces I don’t recognise circling around me. I tell them that I’m done, that I’m stopping.
They tell me I can do it.
I tell them I can’t.
I relay the list of reasons that I have been composing for the last 20 miles.
I hear the words “that’s b*locks”.
I am adamant. I am stopping. I am NOT carrying on. Stubbornness is a Whitlock family trait. I dig my heels in.
When challenged, I take my number off & defiantly drop the pins on the grass. I’d have taken my tracker off too if I could have worked out how to undo the tape that fixed it to the left shoulder of my pack.
Lou, a Henley CP volunteer, Drew from Centurion & ultra running queen Anna Troup join the party. I am the Henley entertainment & all eyes are on me.
I tell them I’m stopping. They also tell me no.
Spencer gets down on the grass next to me & talks. I don’t remember what he says but I remember the encouraging tone of his words.
I am crying. I am drained. I feel physically & emotionally broken. I don’t see how I can do another 50 miles; it feels like an impossible task.
Those who know me well know that I don’t do emotion. For me to be crying here, now, in front of all these people, shows just how much this race meant to me. How much my self-perceived failure upset me.
Whilst Spencer is speaking his words of wisdom & I have tears running down my cheeks, there is a hive of activity going on around me. JayZ appears in his running gear, his race pack on his back. Lou, the Centurion volunteer pins my number back onto my shorts. Anna Troup (Queen 👑) crouches down next to me, puts her arm around my shoulders & tells me I can do it.
I don’t have a choice. I’m encouraged to get up, handed another Callippo & told to give just one more mile a go. If I still want to stop in a mile then I can come back.
JayZ steps in for pacing duties seven miles early. With him leading the way, I start to slowly walk away from Henley & back onto the Thames Path. I hear cheers & shouts of encouragement behind me.
They know – as I think deep down I do – that once I leave, I will not be back.
Just past Henley, there is a route diversion that we found out about during the pre-race briefing this morning. Yesterday afternoon, with no prior warning & no notice given to Centurion, the Environment Agency closed a bridge due to safety concerns. The diversion is 2.5 miles, but it cuts off one mile of the Thames Path so in total adds an extra 1.5 miles to the race route. Or as RD James put it, an extra 1.5%.
The diversion meanders up a hill & through a small bluebell wood. The late afternoon sun shimmers golden through the trees casting long shadows on the ground. Although I think about it, & as pretty as it is, I still don’t take any photos. I quite like the diversion as it adds a little variety to the previous flatness of the towpath. JayZ & I are chatting away & before I know it we’ve done a mile, and then another. At some point we’ve switched from walking to running & before long we’re back on the Thames Path.
I guess I am carrying on then.
As daytime morphs into evening the temperature drops & I begin to feel a little more comfortable. JayZ encourages me to eat & I am conscious that with the waves of nausea coming into Henley I haven’t taken on any significant fuel for quite some time. I manage most of a banana & a gel or two over the next hour. At this point in time, I am celebrating any small wins.
Almost before I realise it we are approaching Reading. Nikki is there, ready & waiting. Alongside Stu, Spencer & Helen. There is no talk of stopping here.
I’m back in the game! 💪🏻
I freshen up & change my t-shirt. I’ve got some chaffing on my back that we deal with. I drink. Nikki checks & sorts my pack, filling me up with fresh drinks & snacks. Gives me a liberal spray of insect repellent & off we go.
As we leave Reading the head torches go on. The next planned stop is for a water top-up at Goring in 13 miles. My watch is charging but I’ve stopped looking at it. For now, I have no idea of distance, time or pace. It’s just a case of getting it done. Run as much as I can. Walk when I need.
I don’t know what changed in the last few miles but my head, which I lost somewhere around Cookham, is in a completely different place. Physically and more importantly, mentally, I now feel as if I can do this. I’ve had to let go of all thoughts of finishing in under 20 hours & I am okay with that.
JayZ & I chat, as we move forward. I remember very little of our conversations, although I do recall at one point reciting the 1995-96 Liverpool FC starting line-up to him… (What can I say, it’s a party trick… If you’re interested; David James was in goal, then we had Jones on the right, Bjornebye on the left, Rudock, Scales & Babb in the centre. Barnes, McManaman & Redknapp in midfield with Rush/Owen & Fowler upfront).
Henley to Goring was the last one of my recce run’s along the Thames Path. In the lead up to race day, I ran the whole route over four separate runs. Whilst some people are quite happy to go into the unknown on race day, for me, this pre-race preparation was important. When I enter a race with the intention of ‘racing’, I like to know where I am going & what to expect. It helps me to prepare my mind, which is as important as training the body.
Two days earlier I had sat down with OS Maps online & ‘run’ the whole route again so that it was fresh in my mind.
During the nighttime miles, I am so thankful for those real & virtual runs. There was nothing unexpected, no surprises, nothing to throw me. Running across Pangbourne Meadows I am tiring but I can see in the distance the bridge & know that just after we cross the river there is a small hill, perfect for a walk break. I don’t need the CP at Pangbourne so I tell JayZ that we’re running without stopping to that hill.
I also know that once we’ve climbed the hill there is a lovely little winding downhill trail through the woods back down to river level. It’s my kind of path; full of twists & turns. Roots to jump over & uneven paths to avoid. Had it not been nearly 70 miles in & by the light of a head torch I would have flown down this hill with my usual reckless abandonment!
We reach river level, dark & foreboding to our left. I know we’re not far off Goring. Not long after Goring is Benson & my next crew stop. Knowing what is coming up helps me to break the race down into manageable chunks. I don’t think of X miles to the finish, but rather X miles to the nice downhill trail, X miles until I see Nikki.
Originally I was planning on stopping at Goring CP only to refill my bottles. I have enough food. As I’m topping up my water one of the volunteers asks me if I want some soup.
Yes, yes I do. I really, really do want some soup.
I have a few mouthfuls of hot, salty vegetable deliciousness & decide I need something to dip in the soup. I see the cheese sandwiches. I am mainly plant-based, I refuse to call myself a vegan, but I eat a 95% plant-based diet. Suddenly all I want is a cheese sandwich. I grab one, dip it in the soup & it is THE BEST THING EVER!
Zero fucks given as I have a second cheese sandwich.
I needed that. I come out of Goring feeling refreshed & revitalised. An unplanned 10-minute break, a toilet visit, a sit-down & a little bit of proper food has worked wonders. (Although, I do wonder what my stomach will think about the sandwich in a few miles’ time…)
I wonder now if the unplanned breaks are one of the things that saved my race. My body simply needed the downtime my protest gave it at Henley. It gave me a chance to rest & refresh. Likewise at Goring.
As we leave Goring & cross the river JayZ is now on his final pacing stretch. Next stop Benson & handover to Martin.
I cannot thank JayZ enough. He stepped in early & with the diversion between Henley & Reading ran 10 miles more than he planned. And he hates flat jogging even more than I do! He was one of the many people who rescued me today & I am not sure if I would have made it to Reading without him.
We breeze through Wallingford with only a cursory glance at the CP & soon we’re approaching Benson Lock. I hear the thunderous roar of the river crashing through the weir before I see it. Up & over running across the narrow footbridge & down to the marina. 82(ish) miles & my next crew rendezvous.
Nikki is ready & waiting with Martin & Rel, my third pacer. JayZ had messaged ahead to say that I wanted a five-minute sit-down. They even have a chair borrowed from Stu & Spencer ready for me. More importantly, they have my requested flask of coffee. I’ve been thinking about this coffee for many, many miles.
As I sit, there is a hive of activity around me. My pack is taken off my back & a blanket is placed around my shoulders. A clean buff is put on my wrist. My head torch is changed over. Bottles are filled & Rel spoon feeds me fruit whilst Nikki puts Sudocrem on my chaffed back.
I don’t have to do or think of anything. I don’t even have to feed myself!
As I’m getting ready to leave, Kerry runs in with Keith her first pacer. He is handing over to Helen here. We hug & whilst I am delighted to see her, I am also a little disheartened. Knowing that we had very different pre-race goals, for us to cross paths here, shows that whilst she is having the race of her life, I am not. I was aiming for 20 hours, and she was aiming for 24. I am down on target, she is deservedly well ahead.
I say goodbye to JayZ as he passes the pacing baton (aka coffee flask) onto Martin. He’s heading for a well-earned nap in Nikki’s car. I have to admit I am slightly envious, a nap sounds very enticing right now.
Martin & I quickly ease into a gentle run with him leading the way. He knows the score, this is the third time he has paced me. He also knows that things haven’t quite gone quite right for me today.
I don’t know how many sugars are in my coffee but it works like super charged rocket fuel! Had my race gone to plan, I was expecting to be running around 13 min/mile pace between Benson & the next crew point. In the five miles after Benson, I run three miles at 11:30 minute mile pace. After 80+ miles & however many hours, I feel better than I have done since 9:30am this morning (or is it now yesterday morning…?)
Even the endless fields leading into Clifton Hampton don’t seem to drag as much as they did when I ran them a few months ago. I have my moments, I take regular walk breaks & occasional hands-on-knees-this-is-bloody-hard pauses. My stomach makes the occasional protest, but for the most part, I feel good.
On the whole, I ran well during the night & despite my setback earlier in the race, I ran far more of the latter miles than I walked. I was pretty much on target pace wise from Reading onwards. I had some slower miles, but I also had some considerably faster than expected miles too.
Martin’s ten miles speed by & soon we’re approaching Culham, my final crew stop & where Martin hands over to Rel. By comparison, this stop is brief. At 90 miles I can smell the finish & I’m eager to keep going. My bottles & coffee are topped up & Rel & I set off.
Rel is looking very glamorous. On Saturday (for it is now very definitely Sunday morning!) she was a bridesmaid at a friend’s wedding & came straight from the wedding to the Thames Path! Her hair is neatly styled & she wears a sparkly tiara. She is also wearing make-up. I have never seen Rel in make-up before.
She runs the whole final section wearing her tiara which makes me smile every time it sparkles in the light of my head torch.
The support of friends is incredible. Running is often considered a solo sport but ultra running is anything but. This is very much a team effort. Nikki, JayZ, Martin & Rel all freely gave up their time to spend a night hanging out with me on the Thames Path. Martin, a Crystal Palace FC season ticket holder, left the match at halftime whilst Palace were winning to make sure he got to me on time. Rel took the last train out of London after dancing the day away at her friend’s wedding to come & pace me. Nikki organised everything, making sure everyone was in the right place at the right time doing what they needed to do. I ran through the night, they crewed & paced through the night. They made sure my every need was met & if I asked for something it was there, ready & waiting for me. They kept me going, pulled me along, encouraged me to eat & dealt with my temper tantrums, all without a second thought.
And then Stu, Spencer & Helen. Not my crew, but my cheerleaders, my supporter & my encouragers.
Without them all, I would still be sitting on the grass in Henley.
Back to the river. Dawn is breaking as we approach the pretty market town of Abingdon. During the day a busy tourist destination. In the early hours, it is eerily still & silent. The grass under our feet is damp with morning dew. The birds in the trees above our heads serenade us with the dawn chorus. As we cross the river, light & colour is creeping back into the sky as nighttime gradually transforms into day. I’m still only wearing a t-shirt, as I have done all night. I was told it gets cold by the river after dark, I haven’t felt cold once.
The path is now rock solid, dried out mud; rough, uneven & hard to run on. A fallen tree, a remnant of the winter storms blocks the path. I clamber over, following Rel’s sparkling head. Hurdling at 92 miles is not the one.
I’m frustrated. I want to run, I feel as if I am capable of running, but the lumpy trail beneath my feet is breaking my stride. I swear at it in anger & push on slowly through to Lower Radley, the final CP. I don’t stop as the volunteers cheer me through, shouting out sweet words of encouragement & telling me I have just 4.5 miles to go. And 2.7 miles until we reach a good running surface!
We trot over two small bridges crossing channels leading into the main river. My watch ticks over 100 miles. I glance down. 20 hours 44 minutes. With the earlier diversion & the race already having one “bonus” mile, there are still two and a half to go.
On we push. I hear the noise of the city in the distance. The roar of the traffic on the roads. We’re emerging from the quietness of the rural world to the sounds of the urban. The finish is near.
I run mile 101 in 11:35.
We cross a meadow. On my recce run, children were splashing in the river whilst their parents were BBQ-ing on the river bank. Today we see only a few early dog walkers.
My foot hits the pavement & I have never been so glad to feel solid tarmac underneath my feet. The rutted trails over the last six miles have taken their toll.
Mile 102 in 10:49. Half a mile to go. Half a mile reach the finish line I didn’t think I would cross. I see the finish gantry teasing me through a gap in the fence. On I run. A sharp left-hand turn & through a narrow gateway.
Nikki, JayZ, Martin, Spencer, Stu, Keith, the Centurion team, runners & volunteers, all cheering me on.
Across the Queens College sports pitch. I break into a sprint as my watch clocks sub-7 minute mile pace. The finish line is mere meters away. I cross it.
Now, I am done.
Now I stop.
💫 102.5 miles in 21 hours 12 minutes 15 seconds
💫 5th Lady (out of 43 finishers)
💫 34th Overall (out of 203 finishers)
💫 A 5 minute 100 mile PB (on a long course with bonus miles if I am going to be pedantic!)
Looking at the stats above, you could argue I had a great race & in some ways, I am inclined to agree. I am delighted with a new PB, & delighted to finish 5th lady. However, it is not the race I wanted nor the race I trained for.
It feels somewhat erroneous saying I am unhappy with my result when it’s a result that many can only dream of. But I wanted that 20 hours. I wanted to do what I thought (think) I am capable of.
I am disappointed that I didn’t achieve what I set out to do.
I am angry with myself because I know, had I done things differently in the early miles, I may not have fallen apart in the middle miles. I put my hand up to that.
Miles 25-55 lost this race for me. Up to mile 25, I was pretty much on target & I was doing okay. From mile 25 it began to unravel. I can blame the heat (it peaked at around 30 degrees) but conditions were the same for everyone. I am experienced enough now that I should have been able to adapt & deal with it.
As things began to fall apart, my mind, usually so strong, went. I fell into a deep, dark hole of negative thinking that I was unable to climb out of. The more my mind faltered, the more my body hurt. The hurt wasn’t real, I wasn’t injured or in real pain. But the deafening avalanche of negativity in my head told me I was broken, damaged & my body was unable to complete what I’d started.
Much of the negativity was fear. Fear of having to explain myself, fear of what other people would think. That they would think I was cocky or arrogant for going after such a fast time & then failing quite so spectacularly. I was worried that people would think I had illusions of grandeur & thought myself better than I am.
I told no one of my goals before the race (apart from my crew & pacers) so that I wouldn’t have to explain myself if I failed.
Why do we place so much importance on what other people think?
And why in times of difficulty are we so unkind to ourselves?
As I sat in Henley drowning in a sea of negativity, friends stepped in. Friends who believed in me more than I believed in myself.
They picked me up & pushed me out.
They told me I could when I didn’t think it was possible.
They said yes when I said no.
They saved my race.
After Henley, this became a race of two halves, or perhaps even three thirds. A reasonable first third, a torrid middle third & a pretty amazing third third.
I left mile 60 at Reading approximately 90 minutes behind my target. I was the 8th lady & in 60th position overall.
Between Reading & Oxford, I climbed 26 places. I finished the race as 5th lady & 34th overall. 287 runners started, and 203 finished the race. I overtook 26 of them in the last 40 miles. I finished only 72 minutes behind my target. I actually GAINED time in the final third of the race.
Something went right in that last third. Perhaps it was the company of pacers. Perhaps it was the cooler temperature. Perhaps it was the self-belief that I could do it.
If only the whole race had been like that.
If only it wasn’t so hot…
If only I had eased off slightly during the early miles…
If only there wasn’t a diversion…
If only it wasn’t a ‘long’ 100 miles…
If only I could fuel well…
If only I hadn’t had a temper tantrum in Henley…
Was I arrogant? Was I cocky? Was my goal unrealistic?
No, I don’t believe it was.
My Garmin clocked 100 miles in 20 hours 44 minutes. Taking out the unplanned 25-minute stop in Henley & 10-minute break in Goring, that’s an extra 35-minutes of time right there. That brings me to 20 hours & nine minutes.
Suddenly my 21 hours 12 minutes doesn’t look quite so far off my 20-hour goal. If I can work on the things that didn’t go right on the Thames Path, I do truly believe that I have a sub-20 hour 100 mile in me.
I was right to try, I was right to give it a go.
Because you never know what you are capable of if you don’t try.
I tried. Today I didn’t fly.
But perhaps next time I will soar like a bird.