Autumn 100 – Requiem for a Plant Fuelled Plodder.

As I approached the final stage of the Grand Slam journey, the realisation of what could be achieved started to set in. The road to Goring & Streatley had started back on the Leeds-Liverpool canal in January when I laboured to victory in a field of 7 runners at the Titus Salt 50K race. Having been injured for 3 months after Spartathlon in September 2018, I had a lot of work to put in to be ready for the Thames Path in May.

The ultimate goal had been to take the Grand Slam record set by Pete Windross the previous year. Previously this had been held by esteemed runners David Ross, John Stocker and Dan Masters, who along with Pete I have always admired and looked up to over the past few years. I knew early on in the journey that it would be an honour to be up there alongside these great athletes.

After 3 races I was well ahead of what I thought possible at the start having run two PB’s in consecutive races at the TP and SDW. After disappointment at the North Downs 100 where I let myself down with nutrition, I knew a solid run on leg 4 would see a significant chunk being taken off the overall record. The plan was simple, halfway in around 7 hours and a 15 hour overall finish. The weather conditions on the day were actually better than expected, however the trail conditions were far from ideal due to the recent heavy rainfall.

As we set off on Leg 1 from the village hall I was once again content to sit back and ignore the early pace setting. I quickly settled into a comfortable 08:30 min mile pace and trudged up the Thames Path in the mud, quickly becoming rather frustrated with the conditions but managing to stay at the comfortable pace. I was desperate to get the first leg out of the way and even turned to music as early as mile 20 rather than saving it for later in the race which is my normal strategy.

Mentally, getting up for a 4th 100 mile race in a 6 month period had taken its toll and even the change of scenery in Leg 2 out onto the Ridgeway didn’t seem to motivate me. On the return from Swyncombe emotions then started to take over. The realisation that I was on the verge of achieving something, only a a couple of years ago would have seemed impossible, had sunk in. The choice of music didn’t help with this either and Garth Brook’s classic ballad “More than a Memory” started to bring the tears. This was quickly followed by “Amazed” by Lonestar and it all started to unravel. However a quick change of playlist brought Cliff Richard and “We Don’t Talk Anymore” and I quickly regrouped. I managed to make up a couple of places and arrived back at Goring in 5th place.

Waiting at Goring for pacing duties at mile 50 was Tom Sawyer. Having some company for the next 25 miles really helped me push on and before too long I had claimed 4th place from Paul Russhard and was neck and neck with Steven Marks for 3rd as we arrived at Chain Hill. This hillier section of the course really suited me and was by far the most enjoyable. Tom was great company and we chatted about his earlier career as a croupier and my love for the blackjack tables.

Waiting back at Goring for the last leg was good friend and fellow NDW100 finisher Hedley. The end was now in sight and all that was left was another 25 miles of mud alongside the Thames Path. My pace did start to drop slightly as we approached Reading however I was managing to eat every 30 minutes with a solid diet of energy gels and Sainsburys vegan brownies.

After leaving Reading, still comfortably in 3rd place I had a costly faff with my headtorch which ultimately would cost me another sub 15hour finish. I pride myself on losing as little time as possible at aid stations and this annoyed me. I had been in and out of Goring HQ in under 60 seconds on each occasion then wasted near on 2 minutes repositioning the torch on my head! I had seen both Henrik and Geoff come back past me as I went towards Reading so knew realistically, given the gap that any better than 3rd place was out of reach. Both Henrik and Geoff put in fantastic performances and I was really pleased for Geoff to lay to rest the ghost of the SDW earlier in the year.

As is often the case, the last 10 miles seemed to go on forever. I was humming Spacman John in my head after hearing it at an earlier aid station (can’t remember where) and then just counting down the miles and chatting inane nonsense with Hedley from time to time. Finally we were back to the diversion on the river and I then knew we were in the last mile. Goring Village Hall and a new Grand Slam record awaited. I had used up most of my emotions earlier on in the race and it was simply a case of relief when I crossed the finish line in a time of 15 hours and 1 minute.

3rd place and a new Grand Slam record by over 5 hours!

A big thanks needs to go to the following people, without which this wouldn’t have been possible. My pacing crew at each race were simply fantastic. Take a bow Tremayne Cowdrey, David Ross, Adrian Savery, Danny Ocean, Paul Russhard, Ed Melbourne, Tom Sawyer and Hedley Humphrey. Also special mention to Nellie, my long suffering wife who has heard nothing but ‘Grand Slam’ for the last 12 months. The 04:30 alarm calls to get up and train tend to disturb the whole house.

It was also nice to meet Canal King Alex Whearity for the first time as he helped undress me and wrap me in a shroud as I collapsed shortly after the finish. When you end up in the foetal position feeling like death at the end of the race you know you have left nothing out on the course.

Leave nothing out on the course…

It has truly been an amazing year, one I never thought possible not too long ago. It really shows what can be achieved through hard work, determination and mental toughness. The 100 milers are real leveller and I can say after initial scepticism about whether I was suited to the distance, I have really fallen in love with these races. Thank you to everyone at Centurion for putting on such amazing events. I can see why people keep coming back to race again and again.

With various niggles which have accumulated through the year its now time for a decent break. Maybe I can improve my 1 mile swimming time and prevent the pensioners from overtaking me in the medium lane at Tadworth baths. In 2020 the inaugural North Downs 153 awaits then maybe another crack at an elusive Centurion trophy.

South Downs 100 mile race report

I ran the SDW100 in 2018 and absolutely loved it, so much so that it made my top 3 in ultra marathons when I reached the big 100. Therefore I was always looking forward to going back and racing it again. Given it was a mere 5 weeks on from the TP100, I really didn’t know what to expect. I was worried that the wheels could come off at any point and the back to back 100 milers would take their toll. In the end I needn’t have worried and it became almost my perfect ever race.

The start for the race had been moved to Matterley Bowl, a fantastic location with some sweeping views. As usual I started out slowly as the gun sounded and settled into 08:30 min mile pace. The pre-race plan was to get to halfway in around 7 hours 20 then go for about 8 hours – 8 hours 30 mins in the 2nd half. I finished in 15:56 last year which I was delighted with at the time and would have comfortably settled for that again.

Steady away early on…

The first 20 miles or so felt tough and I seemed to be lacking a bit of energy, which was probably on account of reduced sleep due to a 10PM change in hotel in Winchester. Thats a story for a different day but safe to say I wont be staying at a Travelodge any time soon (existing non-refundable booking for Ashford aside). However on reaching QE park and the climb up the hill I seemed to find my stride and I was feeling strong through to Washington. As I ran into Washington I had made up 8 places and was now in 4th not far behind my chief Grand Slam challenger Ian Hammett who was looking strong.

At Washington I met my first pacer, Danny Ocean for the first time (ever!). We had chatted on Strava but never actually met in the flesh before. Danny was great company and we ran through to Clayton together. Again everything was feeling good and the wheels were still firmly on. I had also managed to go past Ian by this point and was into 3rd place. The nutrition plan from the TP100 remained in place here, a GU gel every 30 mins, water, salt and a vegan chocolate brownie every couple of hours on top.

I then met Paul Russhard at Clayton who was to pace me through to the finish. Paul was simply fantastic, his encouragement was relentless and he gave me real belief that we could catch Paul Maskell and Geoffrey Cheshire out in front. We were running every hill and on checking the live online timings I could see the gap was closing. Finally about mile 93 just past Alfriston I caught up with Geoff to move into 2nd. If anything I was starting to feel even stronger by this point and it then started to sink in that I could run a really quick time.

Running straight through the aid station at Jevington I had one last climb. Again we ran strongly up the hill and at the trig point Drew Sheffield said the gap was down to 2 minutes. I literally gave it everything going back down and then onto the tarmac I finally saw Paul out in front. However 7 min miling wasn’t quite enough as Paul found something to take the win by just over a minute. My finishing time was 14 hours 29 minutes, similar to the TP100, a time I simply could not have imagined running beforehand.

So near yet so far. Approaching the track at Eastbourne…

So in summary , I had run the perfect race, gone under 14 and half hours, ran the 3rd fastest time ever on the course yet come up agonisingly short. I paced my brother at the SDW100 the year Mark Perkins blazed home in 14:03 and was simply in awe. I couldn’t comprehend how someone could run that course under 14 and half hours. Yet 5 years later I was in such exulted company. After the agony of just missing out on the win has subsided, I can now finally look back and feel proud of the run.

So onto the North Downs 100 in August, round 3 of the Grand Slam on my home turf. Ian Hammett ran another great race and came in 3rd so its neck and neck pretty much as we head to Farnham.

Thames Path 100 – To Dream the Impossible Dream.

In 2010, aged 30, I ran the Casablanca marathon in a time of 03:59. In my apparent peak years for endurance running, motivation and form had reached an all time low. I was regressing and it was a monumental struggle to get under 4 hours. It was simply unimaginable that nine years on I would run sub 4 hour marathon pace for 100 miles.

Training for the event had gone particularly well with an average weekly mileage of 110 over the eight weeks leading up to the race. Due to my love of the hilly trails, I had probably neglected the flatter, faster terrain, however I hoped this would help with stamina towards the end of the race.

My previous best 100 mile time had been 16:01 in Berlin in 2017. This was a similarly flat course, however primarily on tarmac, unlike the Thames Path which has significant grassy/field sections, especially in the 2nd half. In Berlin I had faded badly towards the end and almost had to death march the last few miles. The plan for the TP was simple, get to 50 miles in 07:10 – 07:20 then the 2nd half in 07:40 – 07:50. I have learnt over the years, a race plan is absolutely critical and you need to try and stick with it as much as possible. Clearly it is important to run to feel. however you must run your own race. It is irrelevant how many people are ahead or behind you, you can only perform to your best and hope it is good enough.

At 09:30 we left Richmond and I slowly eased into the race. The first aid station at Walton came around particularly quickly and then it was onto Dorney where I met my crew for the first time. The miles between Dorney and Henley were some of the best I can remember during a race, everything was working like clockwork with the 08:30 miles being churned out with ease. I treated myself to some Brooks & Dunn and then Toby Keith on the music box and had a little sing along.

As I approached Henley and mile 51, I felt fantastic and was exactly on plan, arriving to meet my pacer David Ross in 07:21. I had steadily moved through the field from 16th at the first aid station to 2nd by this point. Dave accompanied me for the next 7 miles before handing over to Adrian Savery at mile 58. Up to mile 61 I had pretty much maintained the same pace from the start. However at this point we both missed a right turn over a bridge, instead choosing to follow a pink ‘breast cancer walk’ arrow! Thankfully, the mistake was quickly corrected and I had only lost a few minutes. The miles were flying by and Adrian handed over to Tremayne Cowdrey at mile 67.

Churning up the miles pre sunset.

I was steadily gaining ground on race leader Ian Hammett and the gap had closed to 9 minutes at Clifton Hampden (mile 85). However as this information was relayed to Ian, he showed his true class and pulled away to increase lead back to 17 minutes by mile 95. I was still running strongly and on plan, however the uneven ground was starting to take its toll and I had pretty bad blisters on both feet. This was due to running the whole race in road shoes, clearly a benefit on the first half of the race but meaning I lacked stability on the true off-road sections.

Nutrition continued to go well with a GU gel every 30 minutes and the odd bit of solid food thrown in. As is always the case, things started to get really tough towards the end and the pain in my feet rapidly became excruciating. Ultimately, it all worked out and I managed to maintain a reasonable pace to squeeze in under 15 hours. Ian took the win in an amazing 14:36 with my 14:58 being good enough for 2nd. I cannot thank Tremayne and Jacque Cowdrey enough for their support in both pacing and crewing and big kudos to both Dave and Adrian for their pacing miles also.

Great team effort

So as Hanibal would say “I love it when a plan comes together’. Two days later, reflecting on the race, I still have to pinch myself that I actually ran that time. It is amazing what the human body is capable of with hard work, dedication and some self-belief. Next up is the South Downs 100, race number two in the Centurion Grand Slam series.

100 Marathons. A time for reflexion…

As I approach my 100th marathon/ultra marathon at London in a weeks time, I have taken the time to reflect on my running journey. The highs, the lows, the improvement and the joy and improved quality of life running has given me. I would never have imagined in 2003 as I crossed the London marathon finish line in 5 hours and 7 minutes, that I would be writing this article 16 years on.

Assuming I finish next week of course, then I will have reached the Big 100. I have on the whole loved pretty much every race I have taken part in. Here is a list of my favourites, ones that were just ok and the ones I have tried to forget.

Top 3 road marathons

Berlin – Germany

I love Berlin – I even had my stag weekend there. The course gives you the experience of the crowds and big race without the congestion and hassle that you get at London. Its quick too, with long straight sections and plenty of crowd support on route.

Beirut – Lebanon

An unrivalled atmosphere and simply put an amazing country to run in. Chaotic organisation only enhanced the experience.

Maui Oceanfront – Hawaii

A point to point race along the coast in Hawaii, whats not to love. The field is small so you run practically the whole course on your own. The race starts at 5am and to see the sun rise over the ocean as you pass halfway is something I will never forget.

Worst 3 road marathons

Orpington ‘Marafun’

If council estates are your thing then this race is for you.

Phoenix Thames Towpath

Up and down the Thames path time and time again. Suicide seemed a good option at halfway.

Kigali Peace Marathon – Rwanda

Its Africa and the country is recovering from genocide, so expectations aren’t high. A 30 min delay at the start line, 4 laps weaving in and out of traffic, soaring heat and inadequate water supplies turned the race into a mental and physical survival mission.

Top 3 Ultra marathons

Heroes Race – Crete

97 miles of rugged mountain landscape across a beautiful island. The welcome from the local villagers across the course is something I will never forget. The history and story behind the race is truly inspiring.

The finish of the Heroes Ultra Marathon. Following in the footsteps of the WW2 Allied Resistance fighters.

South Downs 100

The only race I have felt compelled to belt out a verse of ‘Jerusalem’ on the way round. A fantastic, runnable 100 miler with some of the best scenery the UK has to offer.

Laugavegur – Iceland

A 55K trail race across the highlands of Iceland. The most spectacular views I have ever experienced on a race with a few knee deep river crossings thrown in.

Special Mentions

Eco Trail Paris, Endurancelife Exmoor, Glossgockner Ultra, Eiger Ultra Trail, Everglades 50.

Eco Trail Paris – finishes on the 1st floor of the Eiffel Tower

The ones that got away…

Croydon Ultra

Poor course markings coupled with shocking navigation skills resulted in an aborted race and run back to East Croydon station to get the train home.

UTMB

As the years pass, the pain subsides however I am still haunted by this DNF. 90 miles in with plenty of time left yet I felt drawn to the death bus. Could I, should I, have crawled to the finish? A lesson learnt not to go too quick down the hills and try and beat your younger brothers time from the year before.

Picnic Marathon

A DQ for foul and abusive language aimed at members of the public on the Box Hill Stepping Stones. I think had the race been in Yorkshire no offence would have been taken by my use of the word ‘cretins’.

On completion of this list I find myself surprised that Spartathlon isn’t featured anywhere. This poses a strange dilemma. My proudest running achievement (I may even say achievement in life) yet not one I particularly enjoyed. In fact, during certain points I actually wanted to die I was so miserable. However after opting out in 2019 I feel strangely compelled to enter again in 2020. Surely that is the sign of a great race.

Monument Valley UT – 50 mile race

A 9 hour flight to Las Vegas, followed by a 6 hour drive and you arrive at Monument Valley on the Utah/Arizona border. An iconic location made famous by movies such as Stagecoach, The Searchers, (the greatest Western of all time perhaps?) Back to the Future Part 3 and Forest Gump, (ironically it is where he stops running) is a long way from home. The 50 mile race was one of three being run along with the a half-marathon and 50K and forms part of the Navajo race series. The Navajo tribe who run the park are famous for the ‘Code Talkers’ the ‘secret weapon’ for the US Marine Corp during World War 2.

Top native runners littered the field in both the half-marathon and 50K ultra marathon with these races being won by Craig Curley and Leandrew Martine respectively. Craig competed in the US Olympic marathon trials last year and has a PB of 02:15. It was great to chat to these guys at race registration on the Friday night.

Pre-race panorama

Both 50K and 50 mile ultra races started together and in true Western tradition we were led off by a cowboy on horseback.

Not your regular ‘lead bike’

The 50 mile course consisted of the half marathon route, an out and back 500 metre climb of Mitchell Messa, followed by 3 other loops and a return back to the start. Whilst only having 5000ft of elevation gain , the course was surprisingly tough due to the starting altitude of 5500ft and some long sandy sections. It is difficult to say how much the altitude affected my performance, as it is at the level where there is some debate as to the impact. However it did feel that the first 20 miles were harder than they should have been as I approached the ascent of Mitchell Messa.

It then felt like I was actually back in the mountains as I slogged up the 500 metre climb across very technical ground. It was at this point as runners came back down that I established I was in 2nd position in the 50 mile race. Until then it was an unknown due to both 50K and 50 mile races starting together. As I reached the summit, even with a deficit of around 20 mins to make up, I felt compelled to take a photo of the breathtaking view!

On the descent back down I noticed a runner with a Union Jack flag on his race number. My “How Do” in a Yorkshire accent was greeted by a near identical reply. It’s a small world I thought. However on checking the results the following day I was listed as the only UK entrant! Maybe hallucinations on ultras happen during the day as well as at night.

Summit of Mitchell Messa

Back on the runnable sections, it is fair to say, the race really started and my sensible pacing clearly paid off as I made up the 20 min gap to move into first place at mile 38. A gel every 30 minutes with solid food every 90 worked well and I felt strong approaching a faster section around mile 42. At this point however it felt like I was back runninf Spartathlon as the heavens opened and the wind became brutal. On I pushed to eventually come home in 07:31 with a winning lead of 30 minutes.

Thoughts quickly turned to ‘How am I going to get this on the plane?’

I absolutely loved the race. I can only describe it as an ultra marathon in an ‘open air museum.’ Every corner unveiled another amazing sight and at times as the field had opened up, it felt like I was running in another world. The RD is keen to expand the race and grow it internationally, which would be great. I cannot think of many other locations that could rival this for a ‘runnable’ ultra marathon with such amazing scenery.

Being able to beat all the Americans on their home turf only sweetened the occasion…

After the rain came the rainbow. Unfortunately I was already halfway back to Las Vegas at this point…

Pilgrims Challenge – 2 days, 66 miles

Given this was my first ‘multi-day’ event I approached the race with a sense of both intrigue and excitement. How should I pace the event? What was a realistic finish time? How easy should I run Day 1?

The conditions on the North Downs Way can only be described as challenging. However a trail race in January is always going to be tough. The race stated at Farnham on Saturday morning, finishing in Redhill and then on Sunday the course is run in reverse back to Farnham. Other than 2 miles from Reigate to Redhill the route is entirely on the North Downs Way.

Runners line up on Day 1 of the Pilgrims Challenge.

There was a decent covering of snow at the start in Farnham and we were all wrapped up tightly. After a couple of miles I started to regain feeling in my feet and I was soon into a decent rhythm. After 7/8 miles of pretty good running conditions on hard packed snow, the trail deteriorated and it was pretty much mud all the way to the end. The section around Box Hill and Colley Hill was particularly tough going. I did however manage to keep just above the 8 min mile pace and coasted the last 3 miles to finish in 04:29 in 2nd place.

Glorious conditions! The snow was soon to be replaced by mud however….

So, into Day 2 with a 6 minute deficit to make up on race leader Paul Russhard. However it soon became apparent that Paul had plenty in the tank and at the first checkpoint I was already several minutes behind on the day. Again the Box Hill section was hard going however I had paced the run pretty well and I managed to push on through to Newlands Corner.

Interestingly plenty of runners had like me fallen trying to negotiate the infamous Newlands camber, all made apparent by thick lines of mud down everyones right leg and side at the finish! After Newlands, my target had been adjusted to try and win the day as opposed to overall given Paul was around 10 minutes ahead. I did close the gap again to 6 minutes to finish in 04:33 to finish 2nd overall.

I would highly recommend this race as a taster for multi-day event, especially if you like hilly, muddy trails. The team at XNRG put on a great event which was superbly well organised. For me its now onto the Monument Valley 50 mile ultra next month before an assault on the Centurion Grand Slam.

Training for debut 100 mile race

Ricky Marino has experience of both Iron Man and 100K races, however he has yet to compete in a 100-mile race and approached me to help him to achieve this goal. Ricky has also set himself a tough target, sub 16 hours for his debut at the distance! The key elements of Ricky’s training plan have been to introduce double days and back to back long runs on weekends. Hill training, strength work and trigger point release are also a critical element of his training plan.

The 100-mile ultramarathon race is on April 26th in Sweden (details in the link here), consisting of 5 x 20-mile laps. This is a tough ask mentally, with multiple laps around Richmond Park being used in training to replicate the challenge. Over the next 3 months, the bespoke plan I have created for Ricky will continue to build strength and stamina along with a consistency of mileage, a key factor in improving performance.

Melbourne Ultra client Ricky took the race win at the Phoenix Running 6-hour timed event, clocking 42.6 miles along the Way Towpath in Essex. Ricky used the race as a perfect training run, focusing on a steady pace, allowing him to run a further 9 miles the following day – all part of the bespoke plan I created for Ricky.

Melbourne Ultra client Ricky took the race win at the Phoenix Running 6-hour timed event.