Tuesday 6 May 2014

Maybe I've found my distance. An amazing 100 miler.

Right people...set yourself up with a drink, some cake and get comfortable...it was a long run so it's a long read. To be honest I will be amazed if anyone gets to the end!

Centurion Running's Thames Path 100 was an incredible experience. I still can't believe that it's been, it's gone and that I've done it, and that it really was a near-perfect race for me. Here, I want to try and make some sense of how I managed it and what lessons I can learn for the next one...

Getting my head in the right place
I've only DNF'ed one race before, the Braintree Boggle marathon back in February 2013 and although I told myself at the time it was due to knee pain, I know that really it was a lack of mental strength. I haven't forgiven myself for that DNF, and knew that if I didn't complete the TP100 for any reason other than debilitating illness or injury I would find it very hard to cope with the decision. For the last couple of weeks, I've kept that DNF at the front of my mind, to make sure I remembered just how much I didn't want to deal with that again! I also made sure I told everyone about the race...having to tell them I hadn't completed would have been horrendous...and raising money for Centrepoint was another excellent motivator. So many people had given such generous sponsorship, I knew that I really had to get the job done. If those things weren't enough to get me through the night, I had also scheduled the Thames Path 100 to be my 50th marathon... I was determined it was going to be special and I was definitely going to finish it!

However, since the beginning of the year my training has been a bit erratic, and my mileage has been much lower than every 100 miler training plan I'd read, suggested. I've been averaging just over 45 miles a week, but some weeks have been much lower (a week we went on holiday I managed 5 miles!) and some have been higher, like the week of the Pilgrim's Challenge back in February when I ran over 70 miles. With work and home life, I just hadn't been able to do any more though, and I was confident that I'd done as much as I possibly could. I'd tried to make the most of the miles I'd done, and had made sure to practise various pacing and nutrition/hydration strategies so I was pretty such I knew what I was doing, at least up to 50 miles. It's something I had said a number of times - I definitely knew I could get to 50 without a problem, and if I could get to 50, I could drag myself to 70, and if I could get that far into the race then I knew I could make myself finish!

Everyone also kept saying how incredibly hard it would be - I was expecting dire pain, hardship, throwing up, being disoriented, and freezing cold.... I felt I was prepared for the inevitable trauma of my first 100!

Centurion Running are very hot, thankfully, on making sure the runners are all safe, and so have a comprehensive list of compulsory kit that needs to be carried by all runners at all times. My rucksack wasn't big enough for all the gear, and I didn't have half of it to start with, so I had a bit of a shopping spree in the few weeks before the race.  I bought various stuff and ended up with a new Salomon S-Lab for my backpack, a new waterproof jacket (with the sealed seams it had to have) a map I meticulously marked up with checkpoints, compass, whistle on the pack, new thermal hat & gloves, new Petzl head and Fenix hand torch, a second hand Suunto watch....I was stupid and didn't really test out anything properly before the race, but I was lucky and it generally all worked out well.

I prepared drop bags then night before the race, for both aid stations where we were allowed them, at 51 miles and 71 miles. I had decided very early on in my planning for the 100 that I wanted to do the race without extra crew or a pacer, and so it was important that I took the opportunity for extra "stuff" to be available out on the course. In both I had food to refill the stock in my backbag (flapjack, peanuts, babybels and gels) red bull for the caffeine, extra clothes, and in my 71 bag, I had a tin of Deep Freeze spray and torch batteries.

Race day
I'm sat here typing away and I'm still not sure how to write about this. I feel so incredibly emotional  about the race, my eyes keep filling up which is bizarre. But I'm going to tap away at the keyboard and see what comes out....

Francis and I had stayed in Richmond the night before so I was able to get up at a decent time and get ready easily enough before we headed to the start, although for some reason I had real trouble taping my feet. It's something I do before most races, but maybe it was the nerves - I just couldn't put on the plasters properly. I had the blister that I got from the Good Friday marathon 3 weeks ago that was (and still is) a complete nightmare, and my dodgy no-nail toes, but in the end I just gave up with the taping and had to make do with what I'd managed. Other than that though, everything was ok. The weather was gorgeous and it looked like we'd have perfect conditions for running. Very pleased to have remembered the sun cream too- I lathered on Riemann P20 to try and avoid burning.

When we got to Richmond Town Hall, registration and kit check was all very easy, and I collected my number without having to queue - it was all seamless and stress free :) I saw some friendly faces as we milled around outside waiting for the start and chatted - it all felt very relaxed which definitely helped. After the briefing, and a bit more milling about, we were off!

I'm middle left...waving!

Running 100 miles
I shared the first 15 or 20 miles with a lovely guy called Gary (in the photo) and the time went very quickly. However, I was conscious that we were going faster than I wanted to, and because we were chatting I wasn't focussed enough on eating and drinking as often as I'd planned. What works for me with hydration and nutrition is little and often and unfortunately I must have gone over an hour before I had anything to drink. After a while, Gary and Fiona (who had also started running with us) stopped for an ice-cream. That definitely wasn't in my plan so I pushed on, and soon settled into a better rhythm. I made myself walk the first 0.1mile of every second mile, timing it on my watch, alternating eating a bite of something or drinking a sip of electrolyte drink during each walking break. Before too long, this transitioned to walking the first 0.1m of every mile. Occasionally I'd extend the walk if I felt I needed it (whenever I started to get twinges in my back for instance), and made sure that I was walking upright and at a good pace.

I consciously ran slowly and whenever I felt I was putting in too much effort I would try and slow myself down. A few times I was just really enjoying it, and let myself run freely for a mile or so, but generally I tried to be very aware of how I was feeling and any potential impact on my later miles.

If there's one thing that I was amazed at, it was my dedication to keeping going with my run/walk strategy - I was generally very focused and determined to be sensible and to remain comfortable with my running, but it was very important to keep the walking breaks too!

Maybe about 40 miles? Not sure
Francis popped up a few times around the course with his camera - it was lovely to see him - but once I was into my rhythm of running and walking didn't want to deviate too much so didn't spend lots of time with him. That doesn't detract from how much I appreciated him being there...even if he didn't think to bring any sweets or snacks with him! :P

By the time I got to the half-way stage, I was absolutely buzzing. I couldn't believe the time I'd already made, and how good I still felt. The weather had been perfect, I was running well, the taper niggles had all disappeared and I was feeling more confident than ever - I was now pretty certain that I could make it in under 24 hours. I was also absolutely astonished at how well the course was marked - I'd been expecting to have to navigate a bit, but always being confident of where to go which made such a difference. Admittedly there were a few times when I had to call out to runners in front of me when I realised they were going the wrong way, to get them back on track, but it did seem nigh on impossible to get lost.

About 50 miles
When I arrived at the 51 mile checkpoint, I was surprised to see my friend Sue, who was sorting out food for people. I was offered pasta but declined, got changed into a warm top, had a red bull and some painkillers and refilled the food stocks in my backpack. I saw Andrew, another friend who was running but considering dropping, and I tried to convince him to keep it going. I hope I wasn't too annoying for him. I remember being really cheery about the night section...telling him it would be an adventure! I imagine that was not the type of support he really needed at that stage but I really was in my own little world and I'm sorry if I didn't help as much as I could have done. There were lots of people sat down at the aid station, but I wanted to spend as little time as possible stationery, so I grabbed some snack food, downed some coke as I had done at all of the aid stations, refilled my bottles, and pressed on after hugs from Sue and Karen, ready to have a go at the infamous night section...when the lights go out.

Just a note about all of the aid stations - every single one was manned by cheerful volunteers, who all seemed really interested in being there, and who wanted to help. It was absolutely lovely to be looked after by them all and although I really didn't take enough advantage of it, the variety of food that was available was awesome! I can't really explain how much I appreciate the volunteers' dedication to the cause, and their willingness to be up all night to help us runners achieve our dreams.

Back to the race....Soon enough it really did get dark, so had my head and hand torch out. I'd been worried about finding my way at night but with the reflective tape that was hung up everywhere, it glinted in the torch light and was generally easy to follow, and luckily for us the mud was minimal and except for a few slippery sections - generally the trail was in good condition throughout so it was easy enough to find decent footing and run.

The night is quite mixed up in my mind. I ran a few sections with other people, or at least close to them, and they were enjoyable. From Reading, where we ran past the beer festival, there were a few guys I was chatting on and off with for a few miles and that was really nice, especially when Gary and I started running together. An experienced ultra runner, he was really confident, and running strongly, and it gave me a great boost to be with him. There was a section that we ran through woods, with some up and down hills - this was probably my favourite night section. Something different and fun! :D At some point I remember seeing another friend, Matt, at one of the aid-stations, with the medics trying to warm him up after he'd got really cold on the trail. Always worrying to see but he assured me he was ok, and I headed off again.

I had another drop bag waiting for me at 71 miles. I had my red bull and sprayed my legs with the Deep Freeze (which as soon as I got outside into the cold night air realised was idiotic!) but for some reason I didn't replenish my food stocks other than picking up some gels. I realised I hadn't been eating much of what I was carrying but had been eating a bit at the aid stations, which were now more frequent than they'd been at the start, so thought it would be fine although in hindsight that was daft too. I really needed to be eating every 2 miles as I'd practised in all my training! Again, I also declined the offer of hot food. Here, I saw Tony, who had made the decision to drop after tearing the skin off the top of a blister. He really did look devastated and I felt awful for him...and again, I really hope I wasn't annoyingly cheerful :(

I forgot to change the batteries in my torch as I'd planned at the aid station but luckily I was carrying two head torches with me, so it didn't matter. I know myself so well, I had half expected to do something like that. Soon after I left the checkpoint, I realised I was getting a bit colder and pulled on my thermal hat :)

Soon after I caught up with someone else, and we definitely pulled each other along for a bit. But generally, I was on my own and I was doing ok. It was like my body had just accepted that this weekend, all it had to do was run. That was the plan so I'd better just get on with it. Although I was eating less than I probably should have done, I didn't feel nauseous or unwell, I was relatively warm, my head was still together, I wasn't hallucinating (which people had warned me about!), the painkillers must have been working, and I was generally pleased with how it was all going.

I was also passing lots of people, which is also a great confidence booster. According to the live timings, at mile 22, I was in 174th position. At mile 51, I was 121st. At mile 67 I was in 83rd position, and by mile 85, I was in 54th position.

Unfortunately though, by mile 85 I was a bit more confused - my watch battery had died miles earlier and I had been relying on just a sense of how I was feeling to determine when I should walk and run. Each mile had started to feel much, much longer than it should have done, and I was worried that I had somehow missed the aid station. I'd been running through identical fields with long wet grass, my feet were soaking, and I was beginning to feel like it was some type of mental torture - the body was still holding together but I was starting to get very, very fed up with flat fields! The mist didn't help either as you couldn't really see very much and I was desperate for a change in the landscape.

Anyway, come mile 85, the sun had started to come up, and the aid station was there. My first question when I was through the door was "where are we" as I couldn't believe I was at 85 but it turns out I was and all was ok. Rachel was at the aid-station (the second time I'd seen her on the course) and turned out I really needed to see a familiar face. She was very cheery, we had a quick chat, and I realised how well I was still going and having come into the aid station feeling pretty down, I left feeling much better. I realised I could get a sub 23hr if I kept pushing, and as I looked at the clock I knew in my mind that I was going to make it happen.

Again, I didn't stop for long and was soon back on the road. I caught up to Ellen and Lisa which in my mind was just ridiculous - I'd been expecting Ellen to be finished long before me but now realise she'd been taking it easy with GUCR coming up! I was feeling good so after a quick hello, and getting a boost from seeing them both, I kept on running. The last 15 miles were without a doubt the hardest though...no surprise there...and I couldn't believe how long it seemed to take. I was determined never to sit down (Traviss' words of wisdom ringing in my ears) but there were a couple of gates that I briefly hung myself over for a momentary rest ;) I kept it going though, really pushing myself because I wanted to get that sub 23. I got to Abingdon aid station and to be honest I was a bit fed up with the whole thing. However, I was still moving ok, still running and walking, and kept it going. The next aid station seemed like a marathon away but I eventually got there, and was told I was 4th lady. Couldn't believe it!! I was really pleased with the placing and amazed at how well it must be going if that's how I was doing.

I soon started to get absolutely bored to the back teeth of trees, fields and water. Just the colours seemed to burn on my retina and I started yearning for buildings and a town. It was bizarre, as the countryside you cover during the TP100 is stunning, and I love that type of scenery, but it had just been too much for too long and I remember thinking that if I never saw a tree again it would be too soon ;)

Eventually though, unbelievably, I got towards the end of the race. If a passer by said something encouraging, I'd ask them how far it was to the finish....it definitely helped me to get some idea of where I was, but I was annoyed that my watch had died so long ago. Unexpectedly without it, my run was harder mentally.

The next person I asked about the finish, pointed through a fence, and told me I could see it. That was an incredible feeling. I got a little closer and saw the blue inflatable finish gantry and people milling around. I felt myself welling up...I couldn't believe it was nearly done. I was sure I'd done enough to get the sub 23 but I just needed to push through this last little bit because if I didn't get it by 30 seconds I'd never forgive myself. I remember thinking that no-one would be there at the end for me, as I was so much earlier than Franc and my mum would have expected, but at least I was definitely going to do it. So, I swallowed down the tears, and steeled myself to run through the finish shoot...and I did, into the very welcome arms of Nici Griffin...the wonder woman of Centurion Running...and Karen who was timekeeping. I'm so glad they were both there but it was absolutely unreal. Karen kept saying I was 4th lady, you're 4th lady!!! I couldn't believe it either, it just seemed so unlikely! I finished in 22hrs 20 mins and was 52nd overall. I had to ask Karen a couple of times because that was so much faster than I'd ever imagined I would finish! Maybe my watch dying wasn't such a bad thing ;)

There was a picture taken of me with my "one day" buckle, by the amazing photographer who had been appearing all around the course making me feel like I was doing a really good job every time I saw him. I can't imagine how awful I'll look in that photo but I'm still looking forward to seeing it along with the other official photos.

Then it was over.

Again, I declined the bacon sandwich I was offered...stupid...had a sip or two of coke to drink and a protein shake, and then saw Franc, my mum and brother James arrive. I went to see them and had a bit of a chat, and saw Rod who had managed an absolutely storming race, and our friend Ben who had amazingly come along to cheer me through the finish, and then saw Ellen and Lisa finish which was fab! :) Unfortunately though, I soon started feeling very unwell. I ended up repeatedly fainting, with low blood pressure that wouldn't improve, and was carted away by the paramedics. In the ambulance, my pupils stopped responding to light, and my oxygen saturation levels started dropping to an apparently dangerous level - they gave my oxygen, put on the blue lights and sirens, and rushed me to hospital! Very dramatic but in hindsight I feel awful to have taken up NHS resources for something that I've essentially caused myself.

Thankfully the hospital sorted me out.  The doctor asked me about what I'd been eating and drinking over the last 24 hours - essentially I just didn't take on enough fuel. For someone who is very used to eating a lot of carbs, and who isn't remotely adapted to fat burning, I'd hardly eaten anything. I should definitely have had at least one proper meal while I was out on the trail, or at least some sandwiches, not just cocktail sausages, crisps and jelly babies at the aid stations, and I should definitely have eaten all of the food I was carrying - I had about 5000kcal with me including what I'd packed in the drop bags but I didn't even finish all of the gels I had with me...and I should have definitely had the bacon sandwich I was offered! I also realised that at one of the later aid stations I had forgotten to fill up my water, and so had been rationing myself for a few hours. I got very dehydrated - when the doctor tried to take my blood I was so bad the blood wouldn't flow into the syringe! I have suffered with hyponatremia in the past, and so they recommended that rather than relying on electrolyte tabs to add to my water I should take salt tabs too. I think if I'd actually eaten the salted peanuts that I was carrying, like I usually do, I would have been much better! Anyway, after various tests they sent me home with a clean bill of health.

Two days later and I'm well on my way to fully recovering. My legs and body all feel pretty good, I've been sleeping well and eating EVERYTHING available in the house. Tomorrow I'm due to go back to work. I'm astonished at how well my body has responded and how ok I feel :) I am, however, constantly very emotional about it all. The outpouring of support on twitter and facebook has been incredible - I can't believe how many messages of support I've had, and I've raised over £1,800 inc. gift aid for Centrepoint. People are impressed at what I've achieved and I'm really, really proud of myself as well, especially finishing in such a good time.

The 100 miler was much more achievable than I'd expected but it was still an incredibly hard mental challenge. However, a few people have said it, and think I agree - I feel that maybe I have found my distance. To have had such a good run at my first attempt at a race that was so much further than anything I've done before is astonishing. Now I need to prove it wasn't a fluke...


  1. The thing that shouts out from this, Naomi, is how mentally tough you are. I can sympathise about your watch failing. That always kicks me when it happens to me on much smaller runs.
    One thing, you should put in this blog is a link to your charity page so we can donate.
    Well done once again, Wonder Woman, sorry we didn't get down to Richmond to see you, but Martha did her 13th Bushy parkrun, which isn't bad for a 9-year old.

  2. I think I have something in my eye. ;-)
    Amazing Naomi, and already thinking about the next one??? I'm surprised they didn't section you in that hospital!!! Great stuff and I can't wait to hear about number two. :-)

  3. It was evident from your dedication to training that you had the grit & steel to see this threw, you just didn't realise it. That with your self awareness & brutally honest appraisal of your self means your going to go on to be better & better. A fuel & hydration strategy based on time as opposed to distance & some adaptation to fat burning will have you flying in blinding times i think. Awesome

  4. Great to finally meet you Naomi. So glad we both had a great 100-miler experience. We are definitely coming back for more. :-)

  5. Naomi, you are awesome in the true sense of the word. We are, as ever, totally wowed by your training, dedication, stamina and honesty.

  6. What a great read and a phenomenal achievement. I'll certainly be reading this again as I prepare for my effort - and contacting you if you don't mind! Fantastic Naomi - truly awesome not just to have finished it, but how you did it.

  7. LOVE this race report!! You're such an inspiration, Naomi!! Well done, brilliant report, brilliant running, brilliant result!!

  8. Mental powers,the track got to me in the 12 hour, delighted for you ,didn't realise you were in well after it!!.might pick your brains before endure!