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Friday 30 October 2015

Autumn 100 Race Report: Despoiling Gardens, Arse Chafing & Running 100 Miles

It was 2am and I was having an argument about whether a section of path I was running was uphill or not. You'd think it would be a pretty easy question to answer but not having a spirit level to hand (argument number 2...) and it being pitch black and my legs having run 70 miles already made this a lot more difficult to answer than you might think. However a lot rested on the outcome of the question. The answer meant I could either walk this section (hill) or whether I had to run it (not hill). My legs weren't keen on the running so I was hotly debating that this was HILL. 

It also didn't help that the person I was having the argument with was now expounding his theory that it was possible to turn an uphill into a downhill by focusing on the road just in front of your feet, leaning forward and squinting really hard. 

Ok. Well it was definitely looking a bit downhill now. Either that or the squinting theory was starting to work. But I wasn't telling Alex this. He'd get smug. And make me run. 

It had all started about 16 hours earlier in Goring. 204 runners standing outside a village hall watching the church tower hands tick towards 10am while James Elson, race director and ultrarunner extraordinaire gave the race briefing. The start was full of friends, nervousness and toilet trips. I didn’t yet realise that the run would include quite so many hills or so many NON-toilet trips. 

I can only apologise to the owners of Reading's ornamental gardens. 

Feeling very nervous at the start

The Start
Goring to Little Wittenham ... and back

The Autumn 100 race has a central point in Goring and has 4 legs in a rough cross shape each approximately 25 miles long. You run 12-13 miles out on a leg and return to the central point to start the next leg. It's a great idea. Every time I needed to start another leg, I just told myself I was going out for a 12.5 mile run and tried to ignore the fact that I was running past the option of a nice lie-down in my car multiple times.

Start pic by Shaun

I’d expected to see friends at the start but hadn’t expected to make one quite so quickly. Walking from where I’d parked the car, I hadn’t got more than 15 steps before a friendly voice shouted “Hello! Want a lift?” It was Steve also doing the autumn 100 and he’d saved me the trouble of walking a mile or so to the start loaded down with my usual overpacking. My theory of packing is “If I might need it for a 2 week holiday anywhere, I might need it for a long run. Steve embodied the kindness that is typical of ultra running by transporting me and my multitude of bags to the start. 

I passed the kit check, had a hug from Alexa and settled down to wait for my running companion, Alex. A twitter buddy whom I’d previously only met at 2am for 2 minutes during another ultra run. I wasn’t entirely convinced I’d be able to recognise him although I was pretty sure he was about my height (5”3.5) I was suddenly face-to-tummy-button when I got a hug from my running buddy. Ok. Not 5’3.5 after all. 

Raring to go!
We walked down to the start with Susie, Shaun and Lily and Bill and Alex. All of whom appeared to have far too much energy. I was saving my energy for all the eating. I’d got the calculator out and running 100 miles was approximately 37 creme eggs. Any extra leaping around was eating into the creme egg tally. Not happening. 

Bouncing with enthusiasm!

The start was a hall by a church. Although the hall was packed full of runners, there were no long loo queues, but there WAS loo roll. Autumn 100 was already winning at toilets. I ignored the warm toilet seat which was never nice but which was par for the course with a quick toilet turnaround. Little did I know I’d have paid good money later on for a toilet seat. Even one warmed by a previous occupant. 

Start of the madness!

Ultra runs are not the best place for those of a delicate disposition. And ultra run blogs are not the best place for those of a nervous disposition. Stop reading now if this is you. I’m not apologising later for vomit on phones or computers. 

The time passed quickly and we were soon herded outside to a race briefing given by Race director and Race Participant James Elson in front of the church tower where the clock was ticking down the minutes to 10am. I couldn’t see over all the heads so moved to the side to hear the briefing and spotted Rod, Alex and Susie so went over to join them. I could hear much better there, but as the airhorn blew to signal the start of the race, I realised I was at the front. Shit.

I ran out of fear and was accidentally leading the race for all of 2 seconds until I managed to leap to the side to avoid being trampled by the much faster runners. Phew!  At least ultra runners mow down the slow people at the front slower ...  

Alex and I were planning to run the first 10 miles together as company makes a long run much more fun. Conversation makes the miles fly in a way that music or the scenery scrolling past doesn’t.

The first 25 miles of the run was on the Thames Path. It was dead flat and the chatter made the miles speed. Unfortunately the flatness made my Grand Plan of ‘Follow The Marble Rule Above All Else’ a bit redundant. During a trail marathon a few years ago, I’d come up with ‘The Marble Rule’ for ultras and trail marathons. It was a simple rule. Basically, if a marble would roll down it, I wasn’t running up it.

The run to Little Wittenham along the Thames Path was a mixture of very flat fields, very flat roads and very flat river paths. It was probably very pretty but knowing there was another 75 miles after this section made it mentally tough for me. I overanalysed every twinge and every second quicker than the 9:30 minute/miles I had planned on running, I worried about. Having had a DNF (Did Not Finish) at my previous attempt at a 100 mile race, I had built this race up to something huge in my mind. I’d also planned to walk and run the race: 9 minutes run to 3 minutes walk from fairly early on but because I was chatting and running with Alex who had already completed a 100 mile race, I let him decide the strategy. We had been told at the briefing that people go too fast on the first 50 miles of this race as the first 25 is so very flat so I was petrified of doing this. I was undecided whether to place my trust in my friend or go with my untested strategy. I decided to trust and run the first 25 miles and go from there. However, my calves were very tight which was unusual as I don’t tend to struggle with any calf issues and this was another worry. Just call me Stressy Sarah. I distracted myself with some Pick’n’Mix. 

However, Alex was brilliant company and we chatted the whole way. Spoke to everyone around including dog walkers, cyclists, other runners, people on boats and passing cats. If our legs had worked as fast as our mouths, we would have been waaaaaay in front of James Elson and Sarah Morwood. 

Pic by Stuart March

Passing a pretty section with boats and chalets along the waterfront and a lady called after me “Are you Sarah? Phil says hello!” Amazing! Support from twitter buddies even when I’m offline. 

Alex and I carried on along the trail until it terminated at a bridge. I got all happy and shouted “I remember this bit! We did this on the Thames Trot! We got over the bridge to the left and then (forgetting the Marble Rule) run up that hill!” I ran over the bridge in enthusiasm with about 6 runners following me before Alex said “Uh … Sarah? There are a lot of runners going THAT way …” Oh THAT way. Down that path that’s signposted Thames Path? Ah …

I decided to follow the others. And the signposts. And maybe keep an eye on where I should be going. There were no brownie points for bonus miles run. 

I decided that I probably shouldn’t be at the front and let Alex lead. After a bit of squabbling about who got to run on the right hand side of the path, we reached an agreement that the person who could run the quickest ran on the right (Alex) but the person who could open the gates got to choose the snacks first at the aid stations.

We reached the first aid station in Wallingford quickly after navigating those tricky gates and we checked our numbers in, went to run off and decided it was only sensible to go and browse the tasty tasty snacks. Seemed a shame not to and after all we had 93.5 miles to run and we didn’t want to go hungry. Sensible forward planning.

Scoffing the snacks and chatting away to each other and the runners around us, we realised we’d run up the only hill on the entire section. Never mind, if our legs hadn’t noticed, it wouldn’t be a problem. 

A mile or so of pavement then we were back on the river bank and into the fields. We noticed a runner coming the other way and he was past us so swiftly we didn’t realise until he’d passed that it was the lead runner of the race. He must have been 2 miles in front of us already and made it look very easy. A couple of minutes after him a few other runners came on through but we noticed that a lot of them didn’t appear to be enjoying the pace quite as much. There were signs of strain and sweat on some of the faces, surely not good at the 14 or 15 mile mark of an 100 mile race? 

Coming up to the turnaround at Little Wittenham, we saw friends coming the other direction. It was brilliant seeing them and being able to exchange hugs and high five. A definite benefit of a race with 4 out and back sections! We reached the turnaround point fairly swiftly at around the middle of the pack and grabbed some of the food at the checkpoint (CP) which was in the style of children’s party food. Just needed paper hats and and cheese & pineapple on sticks and we’d be expecting a game of musical chairs and pass-the-parcel. 

A few miles down the road we passed the sweeper coming the other way. A bit of a shock as we were running well and in the middle of the pack but of course at the first checkpoint, the cut off after the lead runner was only about 60 mins. It doesn’t sound a lot when there would be around 12 hours between the lead runner and the average runner’s finishing times over the 100 mile race.

Alex, Loz, Me

We had a nice surprise as we came into Shillingstone as the Lovely Loz was waiting for us on the corner. Hugs all round and a quick pic. Chatting away, we ran down the path and hit a dead end. Ah ... probably less chatting and more navigating required!

We got ourselves back onto the path and as though it were penance for not taking proper notice of my navigational duties I was promptly stung on the arse by a bug. Thanks then. Just what I need for the next 85 miles. An itch. On my arse. 

We ran a section with Rich across the lock and had a chatter. We ran on when he dropped to his walking pace (he was doing a walk/run strategy which saw him put in a great time). He called “Byeeee!” after us in a cheery voice and Alex looked at me. “He just said “bye” in a “See you later, sunshine” voice …” Wonder if we will?” We did. 

Pic by Shaun

Running back to the Wallingford CP, we saw Shaun and speedy legs Andy Cooney checking numbers. “Andy!!!” I gave him a massive hug. “Uh thanks, Sarah. You’re all sweaty. On my coat.” Ah. Sorry Andy. Apparently it was like getting a hug from a pretzel. A sweaty pretzel.

Back onto the Thames Path by the river and before we knew it we were passing the church which we’d started at 4 hours previously, crossing the 2 bridges and checked in at the village hall!

Pic by Stuart March
We tried to keep our checkpoint stops as quick as possible, checking our numbers in, replacing snacks and getting out again. The volunteers were amazing and were getting our drop bags ready before we’d even asked for them, refilling water, offering hot drinks. We couldn’t fault them - they went above and beyond what we’d expected. Amazing.  

Leg 2
Goring to Swyncombe ... and back

The second out and back section, Leg 2 was on The Ridgeway and started opposite the village hall. Past some houses, through an alley and out on the green path watching runners across the river coming in from Leg 1 on the Thames Path. Alex, who it appears is completely incapable of having any quiet moments, blew his whistle and jumped up and down and shouted until the runners on the other side of the river spotted him and waved back. Possibly in fear from the sheer amount of enthusiasm.

We hit marathon distance in about 4 hrs 20 and to my horror this trail appeared to be as boring and flat as the first section. Where were the hills? I couldn’t stick to The Marble Rule and take walking breaks if there were no HILLS! I prepared myself to start moaning about all the flat bits, little knowing that soon I would be moaning about all the hills. Karma. Bloody karma.

The Ridgeway ... the first hill! Hooray!

We hit the first checkpoint and grabbed some fruit and had our numbers checked. It’s a real boost to see the Centurion quills and know you’ve ticked another checkpoint off the list. We were still so close to the start of the race, only just over a quarter of the way through but we’d already run over marathon distance. It was a very strange feeling.

I had a wobble at about mile 30. I’d built the run up into such a big thing, especially after the DNF at TP100 earlier in the year and I was petrified of failing again. I’d not expected to run the whole of the first leg but had had such a nice time chatting and running with Alex that I hadn’t really thought about it. I was terrified of running myself into the ground, blowing up and having to try and walk 60 miles. I didn’t think I could stand to do that. I remembered walking a 6 mile lap at Thunder Run and it just seemed to take forever. I had been tired and sleepy and the 6 miles just wouldn’t end. I was also conscious that I would completely cock up Alex’s goals too if this happened. He was already running slower than he would have been if he were running at his own pace and I didn’t want to go too slowly and mess up his race or go too fast and mess up my race. I had no idea whether I could even run 100 miles. Or run/walk 100 miles. Wibble.

Luckily Alex took all of this in his stride. Told me I was being silly. He just wanted to come in under 24hrs. What??? I had to do sub-24 too?? Wibble. 

I got A Look. And told “Just keep going”. Do what you can. W”e’ve got a nice margin for sub-24 and we’ll add in walk breaks when needed”. It was what I needed to hear. I’d built the 100 miles up into more than it was. My legs are capable of it. It’s just my head that needed to be told. My smile reappeared. 

Huuuuug. Where's my hug?

The Mister was at Mongewell waiting for us to come in. Had a hug. Felt better. Ran on. Smiled more.

The next point was Nuffield and Alex’s family was there for him and Loz and The Mister were waiting for me. Laughingly they told us that Alex and I had been dubbed ‘The Happy Couple’ by the support crews as apparently we were always smiling and happy when they saw us. Glad no-one had spotted the wibble or the moaning about the flat bits or the scratching of the bug-bitten arse. 

We ran across a golf course and past the bemused golfers who stopped mid-swing to ask us how far we were running. We smugly confirmed it was 100 miles. Yes ONE HUNDRED. I love it when I get the “What the …?” look. 

What? There's CHEESE at the next checkpoint??

We ran on, smug faces firmly stuck on until we got to an uphill at the bottom of which I ground to a halt. I introduced Alex to The Marble Rule. He introduced me to the Pretend It’s Downhill concept. Which developed into bickering about what actually constituted a hill. I offered to buy Alex a marble for Christmas so he was able to abide by the Marble Rule. He offered to buy me a spirit level for Christmas as this was DEFINITELY NOT A HILL. 

The 2nd leg was beautiful and undulating and a welcome change to the first flat leg despite having to run up hills. Doesn’t Alex know how to DO ultras?? Huff. 

Yay! Let's all run up hills!!
We soon entered the wooded section named Grims Ditch. It was beautiful with overhanging tree branches, winding paths and brown crunchy leaves. Blackberries lined the hedges and there were toadstools and mushrooms along the banks. A lot of the trail was single file and we caught up with a train of runners and wound through the trees like a lycra-clad caterpillar. As it was undulating and we all had different strategies, we lost and passed a lot of different people. We ran with Darren for a bit and heard about his running adventures and we leapfrogged for a bit and exchanged tidbits of chat as we passed. I wasn’t sure whether he had a doppelgänger or whether it was the fading light but I mistakenly started calling multiple people Darren in the belief it was the same runner. Sorry not-Darrens.

Yay!! Let's NOT run up hills!
Alex and I started our race strategies early. He started clearing his nasal passages, I started eating. You’re a very clean runner, he said. And he started trying to change that by teaching me a valuable running lesson; How To Snot Rocket.  I had never been able to perfect this but I decided that since I had 60 miles with not much else to do except practise I decided to perfect the art. You could tell my progress through the woods by the varnished trail I left behind me.  Alex, as a keen teacher graded me on sound and effort. 

Unfortunately I was concentrating so much on the snot that I forgot to concentrate on my feet and fell over. I’d like to say I tripped over a tree route but it was pretty obvious that’d tripped over absolutely nothing and can’t be counted on to actually run properly. However, this was still a win as this was the only time on the entire run I fell over. Usually 35 miles is the start of the falling over. At TR24 I fell over 5 or 6 times, usually into nettles or mud. At Coventry Way I started knocking my toenails off by kicking hidden tree stumps. Apparently at Autumn 100 I was going to fall over invisible stuff. But only once. 

After the woods, the trail opened out onto open fields. The trail led down and as you ran down one side, you could see the runners on the far side climbing the opposite valley. The photographer was halfway up the hill and Alex decided no photographer was going to catch him not running - even on 100 miles - so put on a sprint. I liked the enthusiasm but not the application so grinned at the photographer as Alex disappeared into the distance. Speedy legs!

Pretend I'm running up hills for the photographer.
Pic by Stuart March
This section of the Ridgeway felt very much uphill on the way out and it was confirmed by a lead runner coming the other way who confirmed that it was an easier run on the way back. (How did he even have breath to chat at his speed? Impressive …!) We got to the bottom of the last field and were confronted by a massive hill stretching up and up and up ... we climbed and climbed and climbed ... and were rewarded by the sight of a Centurion quill and gazebo at the top. It was the Swyncombe Farm checkpoint and turnaround point. I did love the Centurion organisation but why was the CP on the top of a hill? Sadists! 

I spotted a friend, Christine volunteering which was a nice surprise. She wasn’t keen on entering a 100 mile race though despite having paced one previously and another kind marshal helped me fill my water bladder. A runner came in asking for antihistamines as he’d been stung by a bee. I couldn’t help as had none with me although I had some in drop bag but that was 12 miles away. Marshals radioed on to next CP asking for some to be waiting for him. Great work by the volunteers. Everyone was so helpful. 

The run back down the hill was much nicer than the climb back up and we were back at Nuffield for more hugs from family and friends before we knew it. As we came up the steps, we were showered with leaves and grass seeds as ‘confetti’ by the children as a joke for ‘The Happy Couple’. I would be finding leaves for the next 60 miles or so ... I had a quick hug from The Mister and Loz and we were on our way to the last CP of leg 2 and back to Goring for the 3rd time.

I received the news here that my pacer Anna wouldn’t be able to make it after all. I’d been looking forward to running with her for leg 3 but we were coming in a little way under target and she couldn’t get to us in time. The Mister luckily donned ‘Hero Mode’ and agreed to run 8 miles with me to the first checkpoint from 50 miles. We’d meet him and Bill back at Goring in 10 miles time. 

As well as the crews recognising us, they were familiar to us too and we saw Jeep man regularly and he always had a friendly word to say. However, he seemed to pop up every 2 or 3 miles. We were impressed at his dedication although secretly wondered whether it was just one man. Maybe he was one of triplets?

Alex demonstrating one of his Python-esque walks

Trying not to get run down on the main road and avoiding the golf balls on the course got us to the final CP on leg 2 and we popped inside for a browse of the snacks. When we came out we realised just how dark it was. Headtorch time. We put them on our heads and turned them on, knowing we wouldn’t be taking these off for 12 hours. 

About 5 miles from Goring my stomach started to make those ominous rumbling sounds familiar to anyone who runs over 6 miles. Ah. The Rumbliness of the Long Distance Runner. I was coming up to 50 miles run so my running style, already far from textbook, took on a bit of a lurch. I had the Poo-Problem. Do I go slow and lengthen the amount of time it takes to reach the loo or do I get a bit of speed on, potentially reach the toilet quicker but possibly soil my lycra, leave a foul smelling trail behind me and get myself banned from future Centurion events? 

The Ultra Gods were obviously looking kindly on me (while probably having a giggle at my bizarre running style) as I made to Goring without The Brown Pants of Shame. The Mister who was crewing and Loz got the quickest (and fartiest) hug ever before I disappeared into the hall and the loos. Where the was loo roll. I LOVE Centurion.  I stuck the Garmin and the phone on charge, took a long sleeved base layer and long sleeved top into the loos to change into, refilled the water bladder, replaced snacks I’d eaten and changed my head torch. I did all this quickly as possible but Loz was sent in to find me … apparently Alex and The Mister were concerned I had actually fallen down the toilet and Loz was on a rescue mission. Very brave of her considering the possible circumstances around my no-show as she was either going to have to use her ‘Sympathetic But Hurry Up’ voice or her ‘Come Out, Woman-Up and Crack On With The Running’ voice, depending on the circumstances. 

Leg 3
Goring to Chain Hill ... and back

Leg 3 was supposed to be the toughest leg as it was hilly and rolling and headed out across The Ridgeway. The path was mainly unsheltered and if there were strong winds or rain, it could be very tough. It could also be demoralising as you were only halfway through the race at this point and heading out into another 12 hours of darkness from the warmth of the Goring village hall wasn’t always appealing. Especially considering I was already modelling a gorgeous red mark from the head torch in the middle of my forehead. Amazing. Looked like I was about to sprout a 2nd nose.

However I was winning at chafing as Alex was apparently sulking about a rather more intimate chafe. Yep. Arse chafe. He apparently asked Bill if he’d help with the vaseline. Nope. No takers.

The Mister and Bill, Alex’s pacer came with us for this lap. The plan was that they would run with us to the first checkpoint, 8 miles away and then Bill would drive them both back to the base. It was good to have additional company and The Mister and I chatted away until we reached the first hill which Alex insisted we run up and I insisted The Mister try and pull me up. He thought I was joking. Huff. Alex said he thought it was ‘cute’ that The Mister and I held hands for miles. I didn’t tell him that was because The Mister was practically pulling me along as I was running so slowly. The Mister thought it was amazing that he was finally running faster than me in a race. 

We weren’t eased into the hills in this lap - it started uphill and after a short downhill it kept going up and up and then we were into rolling hills with black flints which gleamed like jewels in the light of my headtorch. 

The race leader passed us about a mile into this leg. Strange to think we were just setting out and he was already finishing this one. He looked comfortable and was running well - having completed 75 miles didn’t appear to have fazed him in the slightest. 

Everything went well until Bill received a phone call. It appeared that the car was a bit more complicated than Bill’s wife had expected and was refusing to move. The car, not the wife. Although the overall outcome was the same. While Alex, The Mister and I were being entertained by one side a very polite domestic on the trails, it meant that our pacing heroes wouldn’t be able to get to 8 miles as there wouldn’t be a car waiting for them. So after a debate in the dark they decided to run around at 4 miles and run back to Goring and The Mister would drop Bill off at home instead. They were apologetic about leaving us early and it had been lovely having the additional company, but we’d managed 50 miles without them and we’d probably manage the next 46 without our legs falling off or killing each other.

Bill and The Mister turned around with their head torches and started the run back to Goring. Unbeknownst to me and Alex, they were being mistaken for runners returning for the final leg to Goring and receiving lots of cheers and congratulations. They corrected the first few people … and then decided as they’d run almost 8 miles now that they’d just accept the accolades. And started thanking the people cheering them in the most gracious way they could manage. 

Around 55 miles we noticed we were running at the same pace as the chap who’d been stung by the bee at the turnaround point of Leg 2 and we all started running together. Ash joined our group and the Happy Couple turned into the Three Musketeers. 

Ash is a very experienced ultra runner and we were entertained by the tales of the amazing races he’d run until he mentioned he’d recently run the UTMB (Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc - the ultimate ultra race) which is Alex’s dream race. Alex at this point turned purple and spluttered “Whaaat? You’re about 25 and you’ve already done the UTMB?” Alex started muttering about young upstarts who needed a wee all the time and Ash decided he’d better keep quiet about the “One time at ultra camp… “ stories for a few minutes. 

Due to the rolling nature of this section, it was full of running / walking and the out section was mainly uphill. The first CP took forever although Alex cheered us up by being the first of the three of us to ‘Foul the Trail’ although he took the subsequent mickey taking on the chin. Little did I know that karma had heard and would be coming back to bite me on the arse. Not with a bug, this time. We had been concerned that The Ridgeway would be the easiest section to take a wrong turn on due to tiredness but apart from a few slight detours off course to water the banks we were inch perfect. The course was well marked with spray painted arrows and red and white Centurion tape and we had no trouble sticking to the paths.

Yes. I hopped the WHOLE way.

The checkpoints were manned by friendly and super helpful people - an army of 73 volunteers! - which made up for the bleakness of the trails. No doubt wild and beautiful in the daylight, we could only see the trails 10 metres in front of us in the fading light of the head torches. The glint of the black flints and the chalky soil and the rutted grass tracks rising and falling with the undulations of the Ridgeway were the only things we could see. We were accompanied almost the whole way out by the red lights of the cooling towers at the power station at Didcot and the orange glow of the lights of the town. As we crested the hills, we’d see the lights glittering but a lot of the way they were visible only as an orange glow showing the direction of the town, like a dreadful fire, lighting the sky. 

We saw Susie and Andy Cooney going the other way and Susie was flying. Andy stopped for a brief chat - having forgiven me for sweating on his jacket - then dashed after Susie. We’d seen Rodrigo looking focused and Tony Bowe and Richard going strong and Ben and Dan all flying at different points. It was such a great course for seeing friends!

We finally got to the turnaround point on Chain Hill. We checked in, grabbed some snacks and refilled the water. I was struggling to eat and drink which was a bad sign. I kept eating the flapjacks I brought as there was no way to make it through the rest of the run without fuelling but my mouth was dry and I was nauseous. Even the cheese, beautiful cheese wasn’t tempting me. I wasn’t too concerned yet, though. I had KFC waiting for me back at Goring. Yep. Winning at food.

It was here that Alex, having stopped to water the verges found a horseshoe in the bank. He came back into the CP triumphantly holding the horseshoe and blessed the CP. He handed the horseshoe to the marshal who took it triumphantly - and unwisely - not having asked quite how Alex had found it and whether he had watered it first. 

The run back from the Chain Hill was mainly downhill on the way back but legs who had run 70 miles were grumpy about being asked to run even the smallest uphill, much to the frustration of Alex, who being a sub-3 marathoner was running well within his limits. This is where he introduced his ‘Pretend the Uphill is a Downhill’ concept. Ash and I looked at him. Yes. We’ve run 70 miles but it’s our legs that are tired. We aren’t quite ready to subscribe to Lunatic’s View of the Universe. Alex tried his very hardest to sell it to us. Nope we are NOT running up hills. Certainly not vertical flinty hills. We were pretty sure Alex didn’t buy it either but he just wanted to run.

However I had the secret weapon to keep him running slower. I was the only one who could reach the salt tablets in his ultra vest. He had to run at a decent pace or he wasn’t getting a salt tablet. So there, Mr Speedy Legs.

Alex and Ash in the Compton Tunnel under the A34

My head torch started fading on the return leg. This had the problem of slowing my already slowing pace as I tried to see the path in front of me. It was a vicious circle, I couldn’t see properly so I slowed down then I lost the lights from the headtorches of the other two. The track was difficult to run on as in places it was grassy and cambered or flinty and rutted and in the fading light I was cautious of turning an ankle or falling. 

I had spare batteries in my pack but I didn’t want to change them in the dark and waste time faffing when I could just slow slightly. However, the boys, especially Ash, were amazing here and slowed to run next to me so I could see the path in the light of their torches.

The karma kicked in for our laughing at Alex earlier for disappearing into the tall grass, Ash was stopping every 5 mins for a wee earning him the nickname from Alex - Slackbladder, and my stomach was rumbling in a disturbing manner. Luckily earning me no nickname. Yet. 

I’d hoped that this was from hunger as I had The Mister waiting for me at the end of this leg with a KFC Variety meal. This was the part of the run I was most looking forward to. KFC, hot and guilt free.

Finally, FINALLY, hills done we arrived at Goring. I got my number checked and was handed a box of the best bits of orange chicken that could be purchased in Oxfordshire. 

I took a big bite. It smelled good, it looked good. It just wasn't going down. In fact it was coming back up. 


I had been looking forward to this chicken for SEVENTY FIVE miles. Stupid sulky stomach. I sighed and loaded up the ultra vest with more bloody flapjack. Yum. Flapjack. More. Flapjack.

Mile 75 ...

Leg 4
Goring to Reading ... and back

Note: I’m so sorry for the amount of poo talk on leg 4 of this blog. I considered taking it out but then this section would be simply “We walked to Reading”.  

Back on the Thames path. Sigh. I readied myself to do some moaning about the flatness … then the path turned under a bridge and went up. And up. It was an interesting trail, winding between the trees, it was just SO UP. And no, Alex. I WASN’T pretending that it was downhill. It was bloody UP. You’re a good runner, but your inability to tell uphills from downhills wasn’t winning you any brownie points. Huff.

However just as the woods ended there was a lovely sweeping bit of downhill, followed by steps. Bloody steps. If a Stena Stairlift salesman had been standing at the bottom, he could probably have made 150 sales that morning alone. So long as he would accept payment of pick’n’mix, loo roll and spare socks. We hauled ourselves up the steps and were treated to a long rolling downhill to the next CP which was tucked away in a little dead end lane. Up a hill. What was it with this race and their checkpoints on hills?? 

We checked in. I checked into the loo. Although was put off slightly when the boys started banging on the door asking if I was ok. Yes thanks. I’m not asleep. Just concentrating. 

Checked out of checkpoint and ran across a white bridge. I remembered it being pretty in the daylight when I’d run across it on the Thames Trot but all I could see now was murky darkness. We turned left at the end and into a car park full of people with car engines running. It was either the crew spot or we’d accidentally found a dogging area. 

The Mister was sitting in the car in a corner of the carpark which made me think either I’d not taken enough interest in his hobbies or this was the Pangbourne crew point. Gave him a quick hug and he confirmed he’d see us at Tilehurst just before the Staircase of Death. Otherwise known as the steps over the railway at Tilehurst. But first we had to get ourselves across the never ending fields. These went on and on and on. The river was on one side and fields on the other and we were just running through darkness. And running. And running. And it was too bloody flat. 

I saw The Mister in his car at Tilehurst - he was going to run with us for the out and back of this section which was a nice surprise. However I wasn’t in a grateful state of mind.  My mind was currently shouting “Oh-my-God-I-need-a-poo-NOW”. I remembered there was a wooded section after the steps, which I negotiated in a robotic way not helped by Imminent Brown and when I got to the bottom of the steps I realised that the path was bordered by a bank that dropped off sharply to the river on the left and by a tall iron railway fence on the right. Both which appeared to go on for miles.

I lurched on for half of mile and neither the river bank or the fence appeared to be going anywhere. I’d reached Cloth Point. I sent Alex and Ash on ahead, set The Mister on ‘midnight dogwalker’, ‘drunken rapist’ and ‘fellow A100 runners’ guard mode and set about desecrating the landscape. Behind a tree.  

Feeling relieved and lurching slightly less than before, despite having run 80 miles we set off. The path was flat and passing through parks and past pretty riverside apartments in Reading. I recognised sections from running my first ultra - the Thames Trot 50 and other sections from having gone to the Reading Music Festival and having ventured offsite in search of a loo which wasn’t made of plastic and muddy handprints. Although quite frankly, my stomach having started up again, I would have paid good money for a portaloo option. We passed a group of sleeping swans, ducks and geese on the riverside, peaceful with their heads under their wings. The owls were hooting in the trees. No traffic was passing over the bridge and apart from the occasional drunks, we didn’t see anyone else. Although the drunks were desperate for attention, calling out from the other side of the river “Help I’m drowning. Why aren’t you saving me?” 

We were running alongside the river on the paved paths now. I was keeping a hopeful eye out for public loos  but wasn’t holding out much hope. The Mister suddenly looked hopeful and yelled “Keep running! I’m checking something out” and came back with the news that there were public loos … but which cost 20p. Everyone had cash but no-one had 20p. Bloody pay-to-pee toilets. 

I hobbled along, stomach reaching Critical and there was nowhere to go. No toilets. No convenient 24hr garages, nothing. Not even any bushy bushes. Riverside apartments on the right, ornamental gardens on the left. 

Ornamental gardens. 

There’s a bushy bush in that ornamental garden. I’m not proud. Not proud at all. But there were big leaves. Sometimes when you have one sheet of loo roll left, it’s all about hunkering down and finding the big leaves. 

We ran on and luckily Ash and Alex had waited. It was the first time I’d been able to run for a couple of miles and we caught them up just before the underpass. 

The next section was thankfully uneventful apart from seeing Susie flying the other way with her pacer and her calling out “The checkpoint is just over the bridge”. We were relieved. This section felt as though it had taken forever, not helped by my lurching and Brown Stops which had taken time. My legs were not terribly happy about running but it made the sections feel shorter and it made a change from the marching. 

We passed a post with a sign nailed to it: “Come and do our Halloween Run!” I had several unhappy words about that. 

We crossed the bridge but still couldn’t see the checkpoint. “There!” Alex shouted and pointed to a light in the trees. Which turned out to be runners. We did this for a couple of minutes each attempting to identify the checkpoint and it turning out to be runners. We were almost as the point of clubbing the next runner with a trainer out of frustration when we spotted the actual checkpoint. 

Up a set of stairs. You sadistic bastards, Centurion. Was this some sort of test to see how much we REALLY wanted our buckles?

I really wanted mine. I’d been made to run up hills. Desecrated the gardens of Reading. Been unable to eat my - much longed for - KFC. Ran out of loo roll. I NEEDED that buckle otherwise I had just been on the equivalent of a drunken adventure without the alcohol. 

I checked in and gave my number and visited the loo. There was plenty of loo roll so without fear of depriving the runners behind me, I stuffed every sleeve and packed my pockets. I couldn’t rely on there being handy big leaves everywhere. Returning to the food room looking rather more Marshmallow Man than previously, I had my water bladder refilled while Alex had a go on the rowing machine. 

Yep. At mile 86, Alex decided he hadn’t had quite enough exercise for the day and had a go on the rowing machine. It must have been all that energy he saved on opening gates properly. I resisted the urge to push him over - I didn’t have the energy - and instead concentrating on trying to get down the stairs without resorting to bumshuffling. 

This was it. The final stretch. One more checkpoint. The last time we’d have to run to Goring. I’d have a new distance PB (which I’d probably end up celebrating by having yet another poo) and a shiny new buckle. 

Alex: “Half a marathon in four hours. We could CRAWL that.”

Right crack on. I managed a run for about 10 metres, surprising all 3 boys before subsiding back to shuffle. Meh. Let’s just call it zombie intervals. Although zombies probably creaked, moaned about the hills and flat bits and were less impressed by Big Leaves. We kept up a run, walk for most of the last section although my running wasn't as defined from the walking as I’d have liked. My run pace appeared to be about 13 min/miles and my walk pace was about 17 min/miles. The Mister helped by encouraging me along while I trailed behind like a sulky teenager.

We finally got to the steps at Tilehurst again. The path seemed to have stretched out so this section of path felt a lot longer this way than before. Or maybe I was running slower, not having to desperately find a toilet stop this time. We were passing a lot of runners going the other way towards Reading. It already felt a long way back.

We managed the railway steps somehow. Bloody steps. But at least Alex wasn’t making me run these. We dropped The Mister at the car, his 10 miles done. His support invaluable and I was more thankful for it than I can say. His guarding of pooing-wife second to none.

We ran on through the small residential roads of Tilehurst, down the hill and back onto the fields. The night was still dark, but morning was close.

It had felt like we’d never finish the night. And I’d been pretty convinced that my legs were never going to forgive me for making them run this distance by falling off at 92 miles. However I was wrong on both counts. As we ran towards our final checkpoint, the sky lightened. Alex spotted it first.

Alex: “Look Sarah and Ash. The sky is light on the right.”
Sarah: “Oh yes. Really light!”
Alex: [Shakes his head sadly] “The RIGHT Sarah. That’s the left. That’s Reading.”

Oh. Whoops. 

After a march through the never ending fields, we finally got to Pangbourne. The Mister was waiting for us in the hopefully-not-dogging carpark. But he didn’t get out of the car.

I grumpily said “Where’s my hug” but he didn’t have his shoes on so didn’t get out. Although he waved. I was going to get even grumpier then remembered he’d offered to sacrifice his gloves in Reading to the Poo Fairy (not required) so I forgave him. 

We ran on. Over the bridge, prettier in the daylight and on to the next and final checkpoint. The hill felt steeper the second time, but we ran in and got high fives from the marshals and spotted a few familiar faces. I visited the loo for a final celebratory-last-checkpoint time and we all ran out the door. And to the end of the road. Where we all stopped to walk the hill. This last stretch was like being drunk. I was having to speak and move deliberately and try not to weave. It was like being drunk in front of your parents but with more running and less chance of having your pocket money withheld

We had all had enough at this point. We decided grumpily that the best bit of the whole 100 miler would be stopping doing the 100 miler.

We were watching the clock now. We were pretty confident we’d come in under 24 hours but we weren’t entirely sure how far we had to go. The checkpoint volunteers had told us it was a mile further than we’d expected and we knew we had some hilly sections coming up. My stomach appeared to have ceased its assault on the foliage but if that started up again, I’d have to get Ash and Alex to go on without me. 

But we did it. Despite my legs (and stomach) going on strike, Alex’s blisters reaching epic proportions (and arse chafes too apparently but no-one was volunteering to help with this) and Ash’s bladder on overdrive we managed the hilly sections and were onto the flat path. We just had to run it in from here. This is where I started following a random runner out for a morning jog convinced he was my Running clubmate Tony Bowe. He looked very confused at having some mud covered, zombie of a runner lurching after him but luckily Alex and Ash rescued me (him?) and set me on the right path. 

Lost? Me? It’s not as if I’d run this section before …

We were on the last stretch now leading into the centre of Goring. This was nice and flat and should have been the easiest section. And it would have been, if it weren’t for the army of fisherman who had set up their 10ft fishing rods stretching out into the Thames … and across the path. This normally wouldn’t be a problem but after 99 miles, having to hop the fishing rods was like Krypton Factor for the undead. There was moaning, grumbling, lurching and staggering. All for having to lift our legs 4 inches to clear the rods.

The Mister came out to meet us for the last stretch. We all ran in from the canal and UP THE HILL (Alex!! - see we did run up hills) and back to Goring where the Centurion flags and a heroes welcome awaited. We were run into the finish by what appeared at the time to be enthusiastic midget sprinters but which upon studying the finish photos appeared to be a mixture of Bill’s and Alex’s children running at a normal speed. 

We got to the doors and I stopped to let Ash and Alex through first as they had been much stronger runners than me, but I was courteously although unceremoniously PUSHED through the door in front of them to a cheer from the people inside and handed my buckle.

‘100 Miles, One Day’.

I didn’t cry. But it was a close thing. 

Thank you Alex. Thank you for your company and your slave driving. You were amazing. However downhills will NEVER be uphills.

Ash thank you for the head torch light and for the lovely company. 

Time: 23:31
Mileage: 100.5 miles
Elevation: 4,222ft
Flapjacks: Far too much
Poos: Multiple
Gardens Ruined: Several (I’m SO sorry)
Buckles earned: One
SUB-TWENTY FOUR HOUR buckles earned: one
Blisters: One
Chafes: One (shoulder)
KFCs eaten: None (Dammit)
Hills Alex made us run up: Lots
New friends run 45 miles with: One (waves at Ash)
Friends for life: Two
Pairs of socks worn: One
Amount of sudocrem used: A baby’s bum worth between my toes.
Glasses of fizz at the finish line: One
Trainers used: Asics GT2000 leg 4, Salomon Speedcross 3, Legs 1, 2 and 3.
Litres of water drunk: 9 - 12
Numbers of cries: 0. Although it was a close thing when I got handed that shiny belt buckle. 
Pain & Fatigue: Non linear. First 25 miles hellish, 2nd and 3rd legs not so bad
Sleepiness: 0 - didn’t get to sleep until 2am on Monday morning. 
Number of Times I apologised for being slow, crap and having to walk: Bloody millions
Number of times I was told off for apologising: Bloody millions
Number of times I said “Shoot me if I suggest doing another 100 miler”: At least 5 times

Lovely to see: Loz, Amy, Alexa, Bill, Tony, Susie, Shaun, Lily, Rod, Dan, Louise, Laura, Kate, Christine and of course My Amazing Mister.
I’ve been unexpectedly nominated for a Running Award for this blog! I’d love a free sausage roll and possibly a snaffled glass of fizz. Would you mind giving me a chance by voting for this blog here
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  1. Super Sarah, you're the only person in the world who could write about poo that often and manage to make me cry.

    You superstar.

    1. Thank you!! Sorry about the tears - and the poo!! x

  2. Alex forwarded this to me, Sarah. Brilliant read! I was totally gripped. I feel honoured to feature. I enjoyed reading to Jo (my 'The Misses') your version of my end of our domestic. You guys are my heroes. Bloody well done!

    1. Oh, this is Bill, btw. xx

    2. Hi Bill! Thank you so much for your company at the weekend!! It was so lovely to meet you!

  3. Loved your writing on this - and congratulations on such a huge achievement. Good running!

    1. Thank you ... and well done on YOUR achievement ... getting through possibly the longest blog post EVER! ;)

  4. I dream of an ultra where I get to bring all my (unused) loo roll home again ...