I was first aware of this race in 2012 when I volunteered to be a Sweeper at that year's event little did I know then that itself was to be an adventure just on the 50 mile stretch I ran with high winds and horizontal rain, this year I had to do it myself, preferably without the bad weather though.
Background of the race
The race is described as a 100 mile winter trail run taking in the Ridgeway and Thames Path National trails. Race comprised of 4 x 25 mile out and back spurs. Total Climb: 3,840ft
The day of the race
Having packed my kit the night before it was just a matter of getting up at 5.45am, have a quick breakfast, get some clothes on and get to the station by 6.29 am to catch the early train. It was cold at this hour and a quick look in the mirror suggested I was looking a bit like a burglar going on a job! The black hat was going to be my friend for a considerable amount of time that weekend as were my gloves.
An uneventful journey unfolded from then on but it was only until I reached my changeover stop of Reading did I spy Montane wearing, Hoka bouncing skinny people that when I mentioned loudly "Winter 100?" they looked up and we gathered together to talk tactics, expectations and experiences, the party had started.
Arriving at Race HQ in Streatley it was a whirlwind of activity, runners stepping over each other, the acrid fug of Deep Heat, calls for safety pins, Vaseline, waiver signing, kit check and dressing. The weather was sunny with a sign of cloud but windy, I took the majority vote and went for long and short-sleeved top, hat and leggings but after standing outside for a few minutes went for a shower proof jacket as well, from experience I know it gets windy on the open areas of the Thames, in fact a good call.
This was my secret plan, aim for 26 hours total, 5 hours on the first spur, 6 hours on the second, 7 hours on the third and then 8 hours on the last. So in all, if the plan went right, I would have 12 & 14 hours on each trail in total taking into account a slowing speed as the race progressed giving me 4 hours to play with if something went wrong.
Spur 1 (0-25 miles)
After the start I pulled back away from the main group of runners as I was aware that there were a lot of novice 100 milers in the pack and did not want to be pulled into an early fast pace. The trail was dry and just slightly damp so there was no mud, my focus was 5 hours and so everyone around me was ignored unless I was spoken too as I wanted to just pace through. As I dropped into the zone I had loads of advice I had heard through the years from trail friends :
- Keep the breathing unragged
- Always drop down a gear
- Drink, eat
Just a few of many tips rolling around my head, one that came back to haunt me later was "Ditch the Union Flag shorts" was even suggested but they were going to stay for a little while. The weather was amazing compared to last year with blue skies and sunshine but it was very obvious stepping out of the door that it was windy so I was glad that had I nipped into the hall before the start and grabbed by windproof as it was quite cold on the open river. The banks and path were dry and with very few muddy sections so it was a comfortable run chatting to anybody who wanted to talk but I was still mindful of going it alone as it was early on in the race and I wanted to knock it out easily such that as I approached the first aid station at Wallingford I was happy to see the food items were classic long run food, fruit, cakes, cola, water and other tasty delights.I grabbed a some food, topped up the bottles and a carb gel and back on the road with 4 minutes.
The pack was still close and I was happily cruising such that the miles flew by that I was soon on the turn around back to Wallingford finding that there was a small group of us running near each other but I was still single minded to stay away from forming allegiances, it was just too early. Back at Wallingford and 19 miles into the run I was great and had this massive craving for fruit such that I was gobbling down water melon and satsumas, the simple sugars and juice really hitting the spot. So with topped up bottles I went on my way to rattle into Streatley in a very pleasing 4:29. My main objective was to get as much trail as possible in daylight but chose to have some me time to eat, drink a few cups of cola and a (cooled) coffee before I ran off towards the Ridgeway (with my race saver map safely exchanged in my race vest)
Spur 2 (25-50 miles)
I have run all these race trails on a number of occasions but none so more as this section as last year I was Sweeper and ran this part twice the strange thing was I had never run it in daylight before! I enjoyed this section and lapped up the initial miles as the ran parallel to the River Thames for 6 miles such that I could see the other racers on the other side of the river. I'll talk about my race tactics another time but care needed to be taken on this section, wonderful flat sections soon turned into the Grim's Ditch and even now as I write this want to add an expletive to the front of its name as it holds memories of stumped toes, stumbles and friends getting hypothermia on its exposed areas, this section is not for the light hearted, this section is respected by many a seasoned trail runner. I was well and truly on the Ditch now and 34 miles into the run mid section come and gone but now the issue of head torches hit me. There is one annoying problem with out and back runs that some runners with extremely powerful lights have a habit of looking directly at your face when wearing it causing night blindness and this was beginning to happen more and more, I think the issue is the fact that they themselves do not have night sight so are unaware of runners approaching them. Along Grim's Ditch this can be a real problem with the many trip hazards, I think I was a bit weary now as I was feeling a bit tense and just wanted to navigate off this section so was really pleased when I realised that I was jogging off the path and onto the roadway which was a sign of the aid station and turn around at 37.5 miles at the top of the sharp ascending hill. On arrival I was really happy to have a nice cup of coffee, some solid food and a pocketed a handful of carb gels. I didn't waste time here and trudged off aware that the temperature was dropping as the skies cleared to a beautiful starry night. The most bizarre thing happened around this time when, in the distance, I heard a cacophony of birdsong originating from a small woodland, hundreds of birds which kept me mesmerised for a few minutes until...
Flash, Flash, Flash
...aaahhh my head torch was losing power, the batteries new, but were a cheap option that obviously didn't like working in low temperatures around 0 C (there was frost on the ground at this part of the Ridgeway) so dropping the output to its lowest setting trudged off carefully, in fact, it was not a serious issue, I just needed to concentrate. At the 43.5 mile aid station I grumbled about my stupidity when the volunteer happily handed over new Duracell batteries. I was back on track, a warm drink and food now got me on stride and I paced off, part running, part speed walking to hammer home to Streatley at completing the 50 miles in 11:19 pleased that I was on schedule but that spur taking a little longer than I wanted.
The plan at this aid station was to change my kit, off came my trusty Union Flag shorts, my long and short sleeved tops replacing them with a dry top, a 200 gram under-fleece, my OMM Kamleika top, hat and fleece gloves. I was feeling particularly dehydrated so I took some time to drink loads of fluids, eat a pile of food.
This section was going to be full of surprises and silly mistakes, one I was not really looking forward to as after all it was the Ridgeway! From the outset it was up hill all the way, some section horrendously steep for legs that have now done up to 100km. The temperature was down and the ground under foot was rutted and hard with wind coming off the shoulder, I was toasty warm taking full advantage of my Buff as a face cover but the going was hard as I was mainly going at speed walking pace but having to really concentrate as the course markings were few and far between and I had to use fingerpoints and the path signs of an acorn.
I continued up hill and I was feeling really warm as the hat was down, the Buff was up and I was happy to plod the section as my time was looking good and I was feeling unpressurised but now feeling really hungry such that I saw in the distance a bright light....an aid station? A few years ago I remember being on the Ridgeway and saw a similar light as this and it took ages to arrive, a horrible trick of the light that took 20 minutes to turn into a tent with hot soup, sausage rolls and gels. Here I took a cup of chicken soup and cracked on knowing that it was only about 4 miles to the turn around. At the turn around I think I had the most delicious soup which really hit the spot and bucked me up such that I was raring to go.
I carried on trudging and tripping holding it together for the moment as the directions were becoming unclear to me probably caused by tiredness and was past the midpoint checkpoint very soon. As I continued on I looked up and in the distance saw very bright lights getting brighter by the second that soon merged into one, a vehicle? Strange as it was, a vehicle was driving up the Ridgeway in no man's land and at first I thought it an ambulance but it was in fact a small flatbed truck that bumped and bounced past me.
DISASTER....the lights blinded me and little did I know that we passed each other just at the turning point where I need to go east, I continued south! The image on the left shows the turning point and I continued on Churn Road and was totally confused when I found myself on a road and off my map, it transpires I had gone 1.5 miles off course and was told by phone the only way back was to retrace my steps....AAAAHHHHH I was now 3 miles behind myself which was the equivalent of about 50-60 minutes race time, I was furious and probably made a strange sight as a ninja style ultrarunner jogged swearing and muttering back up the hill to start the next 6.3 miles back to Streatley.
At Streatley I entered the hall and looking back at it was probably seen acting strange when I asked about cut offs, for vaseline, coffee and food all in one sentence, it appears I was going a little stir crazy. The ever attentive staff soothed my furrowed brow stuffed my face with drinks and food as I was again feeling dehydrated. I was was probably grumbling about something and my concerns about cut offs when a lovely lady called Nina approached me and just quietly told me I was 2 hours ahead and had to get out there before I talked myself out of it. I did just that, manned up and left the hall ready for the last 25 miles....one of the most painful 25 miles I have endured.
Spur 4 (75-100miles)
I had done it....I was out on the route after 75 miles, the event was mine and I had plenty of hours in the bank, I was enjoying it now as the sky was lighting up and I recognised the trail have traipsed it a number of times before, I was nearing Paignton and was feeling happier, the hot coffee and light food was working its wonder as I felt the energy return to my legs...however disaster struck, I stumbled lightly on a root and rut and felt my ankle turn, not a major twist but one that caused me to grunt...OUCH.
The section at Paignton is horrible as it is a sharp incline up a section of hillside parallel to the river that takes you through a mini ravine and then out onto the road to ascend up a roadside and then down a massive staircase to the river again but now my ankle was complaining and I was at mile 83 which was not a good place to be as my speed was well down, I had practically taken no food at the mid-point aid station but was feeling strong, if not upset by the foot which was increasingly being knocked or twisted. I could see Reading in all its glory ahead and knew that there was one footbridge between me of the turn around point, jeez that was painful but not as painful as the aid station that I discovered was at the top of 2 flights of stairs but there was coffee and food there which I guzzled and slurped for all I needed to do now was get 12.5 miles to home and so limped off then went into uberpanic when I found the sweeper (Paul Ali) was about 5 miles behind me, possibly slightly ahead of cut off but sufficiently close enough.
I walked as fast as I could, my ankle on fire with every step of wet mud or an incline but I continued on trying to keep my mind on other things as I refused to be timed out, the comment by the Delightful Mrs S stating I probably wouldn't finish firing me up desperate to prove her wrong. The steps and hill back were horrible as my now painful shin and ankle conspired against me as I stumbled and limped down it, now a little perturbed as a runner and pacer zoomed past. As I approached Paignton again I made a call to HQ saying I was worried about time and my ankle was about to give in, James told that he wasn't going to pick me up as I had plenty of time. I needed the reassurance so plodded and limped on feeling sick with pain as I clambered up the mini-ravine, going down fine but stepping back for every two steps forward going up nearly falling over near the top....I did it, now it was all downhill and flat so kept it steady, my watch being glanced at every 30 seconds, time was a problem now.
Paul Ali ran up from behind and started chatting, I monosyllabic but concentrating on the route ahead, then David appeared on the trail ahead, the Nici and the Dick on the bridge, I had 8 minutes and 800 metres before being timed out. Nici looked at me and asked if I wanted to run, I said no but then got the bit between my teeth and went for it as I crested the bridge, I was probably not running very fast but I felt like Usain Bolt as darted along shout "Do I need to go in the hall to finish?" or "Where's the road?" Suddenly my world went into tunnel vision as all I concentrated on was the Centurion flag and the the last turn into the hall to cheers of the people inside....I had hit the cut off with 3 minutes to spare, my head reeled.
The next few minutes went like a whirlwind of hugs, hand shakes and what I wanted most, a chair. I had done it run my second 100 mile distance of the year and I was happy as hell but oh so very tired.