Sunday, 3 January 2021

Autumn 100: The English Edition

It's not big and it's not clever but I've just hung up on the guy from Track and Trace. I didn't really mean to. And it was definitely not the grown up response but I cannot process what just happened. Three days out from a race I have trained for two years for I have been told I cannot race. All because I went to a coffee shop where someone had Covid19. I find this news out while packing up my kit. And I sit in the remnants of my kit for a really long time. Frozen. Unable to move. To process. To cope. To breath. It's over.

Two hours later my friends have swung in to action. It's not over. They tell me. We can make it happen. We rearrange. Reimagine. Plan like crazy and reschedule the race for one week later. We don't do it lightly. To try and run a solo hundred miles seems utterly ridiculous. But it's the big dream. Run 100 miles. Not that race. Not UTMB points. Not the buckle (you earn buckles rather than medals in hundos) but the experience of that journey and of testing myself against my limits. After two years of hard work I still have no idea if it's possible. But race lines won't affect my desire to try.

So one week late I'm standing on the start line of the Autumn 100 race, Goring Village Hall, with my friends Claudi and Cathy socially distanced cheering me on and my partner in crime Graeme ready for the first pacing duty. So I load my watch, 3-2-1, off I go. We head out on the exactly same route as my race the week before and my amazing friends and family have come together to set up aid stations where they would have been using bags I've packed for them. This means as I start running I can mentally easily break down the terrifying 161km in to just the next X until the next aid station and I focus on only trying to be in the present moment. 


The Thames Path is beautiful and the weather couldn't be better: it's cool but not cold, bright but not sunny, and it's a bit damp underfoot but not too muddy (ideal as the ground is softer). I happily chat away to Graeme as we head north and after what seems a very short 10km Graeme has turned around and I run in to the pretty riverside village of Wallingford to cheers from my Dad who has run out to meet me. I follow him in to my first aid station set up by my Mum and after a quick natter and some fuel I'm off north by myself for the first time. The quiet as I run north past boats and dog walkers and a couple of comments of "I thought that race was last weekend?" is blissful and I feel so blessed to be here able to run. Having the race not happen but being on the start line anyway has made this more of an honour to be fit enough and well enough to be here running.


As I come towards the final north stretch I hear the screaming voice of my friend Cathy whooping across the fields as I approach Little Wittenham and we run in together to the back of her car that she's set up as Aid Station 2. The joy of the A100 is it's 8 sections in total comprised of 4 out and backs from Goring so it's actually quite simple to try and recreate if you've got friends willing to be your aid stations along the way. So after refuelling we head south back towards Goring and Cathy runs me all the way back to my parents aid station where I pick up my lovely friend Martha and we head south again for 5km together. About 35km Martha leaves me (after much clapping from her gorgeous baby Ava - best cheer squad member of the day) and that final section back to Goring I feel not quite brilliant. I'm over warm, my stomach feels a bit unhappy and I treat myself to a couple of mostly hiking kilometres. Rather stupidly I've just let myself get too warm and after stripping off several layers I'm feeling much better and I run in to Goring to my lovely campervan crew. 




I'm so excited as we head out for leg 2 to have picked up two inspirational running friends who don't know each other - my rapid, long distance queen Nicola, and my equal rapid parkrun friend Thom. Together we chat away as we head North East on leg two, following the Thames on the other side of the first leg. This section is the hilliest of the four but it's good as it encourages me to keep a steady pace and I'm feeling so upbeat. We pass 50km and I feel all the hairs on the back of my arms and neck stand up. "I'm doing this. I'm actually doing this."


One of the sections I found hardest while out on practice runs by myself was Grims Ditch - a long section that on a map looks like a straight line but in practice is narrow and extremely undulating with lots of tree roots and twists and turns. However, with my friends it's great fun. I pass another aid station manned by Martha and baby Ava and after a fair bit of hiking uphill but still lots of decent running sections we make it to the turnaround of leg 2 with another aid station brilliantly provided by Cathy. As I arrive in she's kindly set the aid station up right by the church in Swyncombe but I know there is a final short climb up to a car park for the aid station on race day so I stubbornly run a quick out and back before refuelling. If I'm doing it: I'm doing it properly! 



I head back south with Nicola for the climb out of Swyncombe that had scared me in planning but on race day is filled with smiles even though it's tough. My legs are still feeling pretty good but my stomach isn't that happy. I'm feeling quite bloated and that makes running a bit uncomfortable but the company is distracting and as we get back to the river I'm joined by my friend Riz and unexpectedly my parents have hiked miles to come and cheer me on. Leaving them for the final 7km back in to Goring of this leg I hit a massive low. I think the combination of it getting dark and me being down on my predicted schedule hits me hard and I find it hard to crawl out of the hole I've got myself in to. I'm also feeling sick and it's taking a lot of energy to keep eating. Riz goes above and beyond in his pacing duties passing over his headtorch to me as I hadn't expected to need mine until leg 3. We trudge in to Goring together and I'm beyond grateful for the company that scrapes me through to the end of leg 2. 


Back at the campervan in Goring my heart soars as I come across my merry band of supporters - all standing spaced out in the car park. I've got my friend Simon (covering the aid stations on leg 3), Luke (taking me through the nighttime Ridgeway sections), Matt (here for the cheers and some miles on leg 4), Gabi (here for her first night time trail experience) and of course Riz, Nicola and Graeme. I get bundled in to the van by Claudi where I change my t-shirt, shorts, socks and shoes to feel 'fresh' and am fed pizza while I complain I'm really not in to food. As I stand up after eating I suddenly know firmly I am going to be sick and seconds later I throw up violently. Over and over again. 




While this isn't the experience anyone wants to go through, especially not surrounded by your mates, about 3 minutes later I'm feeling 100 times better as my bloated stomach has gone and I really do feel like I can press on again. I clean up. Drink something. Horribly, I eat something and my pals remind me that at 50 miles, every step I'm about to take will be the furthest I've ever run. And I should be so proud.


And so with my own headtorch now on we head out through Streatley and on to the Ridgeway in the dark - a merry band of Gabi, Riz, Nicola and me. This group have to put up with the snails pace of me recovering from being ill but they are happy to be helping me achieve something so crazy in this totally crazy year. The snails pace works though and we make it out at my friend Luke's car as a makeshift aid station. This section - out and back to Chain Hill will become one of three moments I look back on as the toughest of the run. I can totally understand why this is the chunk that causes people to DNF on return to Goring Village Hall on the race. The ridgeway is lovely but it's undulating, muddy, exposed and quite frankly boring in the dark. There is a joke amongst those who do A100 that both directions on leg 3 are uphill and it honestly feels like that is true. You're constantly dragged to walking as you face another rolling uphill section. 

I'm also now on the longest time I've ever been on my feet and the tiredness is eating away at me. Before the race, I thought it would be physical pain in my legs/body that would be the reason I might not make it. But by far on race day the killer is the exhaustion. My poor friends have to deal with me repeatedly needing to sit down for 60 second 'nap' breaks. I run until I want to fall over then I let myself lie on the trail for a bit and we go again. It's a horrible vicious attack of exhaustion. Reaching Chain Hill I'm treated to my lovely friend Simon who has brought soup, the first thing I've actually wanted to eat in hours and though I feel like I'm melting through tiredness Simon puts his arm on my shoulder and reminds me that there are just 3 legs of the 8 to go. 100km done. "You're doing it."

So off Luke, Nicola and I set again in to the night. I have no idea how it's possible but the rumours are true: both directions of leg 3 are uphill. We scrape our way through the miles and eventually I make it to Luke's car as a check point halfway back where I'm granted a 3 minute nap break in the front. I'm handed over to my friend Flav and the two of us, in the middle of the night, head off in to the black. I'm virtually crawling by this time, moving so slowly I'm feeling hugely guilty. But Flav is all good temperament and positivity and we happily chat away as we clock the miles back and before I know it we've made it back to Streatley and are running through the streets on our way to the van. 

The crew back at the van are in a sorry but upbeat state having been starved of sleep but they're delighted to see me and I now know I'm going to finish this adventure. I get treated to a pacer swap again and complain non stop about being forced to eat while also being delighted my friends are making sure I take on something. At this point I pick up two pacers - the highly energetic and enthusiastic Samy, and my coach and brilliantly inspirational friend (and two time 100 miler finisher) Claudi. Claudi was due to be my original pacer the weekend before for this final 25 mile section so it feels momentous to have got to the point where we are running the final leg. 


This is though, where it all falls apart a bit for me. The feeling of the end being so near, the gnawing overwhelming pull of tiredness and the fog that has descended in to the river edge we are running along is mentally exhausting. I keep seeing things that look like perfect spots to lie down "ah yes cowpat in the middle of a field, lovely" but I get cajoled in to continuing moving. I happily contemplate how if I lie down I'll freeze to death but I won't have to keep moving. It all gets quite bleak. After several hours moving so slowly we are virtually going backwards I make it to Pangbourne and my friend Matt has set up an aid station in his car. He hands me a tub of noodle soup and informs me lovingly but firmly that I'm not allowed to leave until I've eaten it. So I sit in the front of his car and cry my eyes out at the prospect of having to eat. And I mean full on snotty, sobbing, guttural tears. Sob. Sob. Sob. 


But hey. That's what friends are for. And through the snotty tears I shovel some food in to my nauseated self. Released back in to the fields we continue our crawl towards Reading and the turn. Suddenly we're running towards my friends Heidi and Stu, who have cycled from London to set up their aid station at the final turn and I am treated to sugary hot coffee and gingerbread men. As I sit there eating the tiredness suddenly dissipates and I discover a bit of a breakthrough moment. I check my watch. I calculate if I push on I can finish in under 28 hours. I look from my watch up to Claudi. "I know," she says. "But we have to get moving. It's going to be close." So I'm off.




And suddenly I feel like I'm flying. I cover the section from Reading back to Pangbourne over twice as quickly as I did on the way out. On the approach to Pangbourne my parents are standing in a field cheering me on. No one wanted to tell me they'd be there in case the very first train of the day they'd managed to catch from London hadn't been running. "We're so proud of you" my Mum says. I cry. In fact I'm crying writing that again in my race report. My parents are bloody brilliant. More friends are scattered around the fields by Pangbourne cheering me on. It's almost overwhelming but the clock keeps ticking and I push on. My friends find me sugary fizzy drinks and we run out of Pangbourne and on to the blasted final section back to Goring. At one point I am forced to sob as I have to hobble my screaming legs down a flight of trail steps. But I keep moving. "It's going to be tight" Claudi says. It's the energy I need and I'm off again, trying to push forward down the trail as quickly as I can.


During my training I've developed a mantra song, a song that empowers me and lifts me up when times get rocky and Claudi plays it out the speaker of her phone now as my little merry band of pacers help push me along the trail:

"I am a giant. Stand up on my shoulders, tell me what you see.
I am a giant. We'll be breaking boulders underneath our feet.
Don't hide your emotions, you can throw down your guard.
And feed from the notion we can be who we are. 
You taught me something: freedom is ours.
It was you who taught me living is togetherness."

It is impossible to imagine how I could have been running towards Goring now without that crew of friends. My crew. My togetherness. They've let me stand on their shoulders to get to this point. In return I've given absolutely every ounce of myself until rubbed raw in to my emotionally destroyed but still determined state. And so we run on.

Having run this section before I know when we are just minutes from Goring. The clock informs me time is running low but I know I'm going to make it and the hairs on the back of my neck stand to attention as Matt whispers for me to finish well. So I round the corner from the river path and ignoring the uphill back to the village hall and the screaming in my legs and the hours of tiredness and the nausea I somehow start sprinting throwing everything I possibly have at the last stretch and just like that, I reach the front door to Goring Village Hall which I touch and then burst in to guttural sobs. It's over. I did it. 27:57:01. I turn to Graeme who has just run me in with our friends. "We did it," I sob. "You did." He replies. For days afterwards the poor boy will have to carry me round the flat and help pull me from lying down to sitting up as I deal with the consequences of putting your everything in to something. But really: I think that almost-breaking-point was what I was always looking for.



So there you have it: I did it. Or more accurately we did it. Because the real thing I learnt on this journey is, just as they say it takes a village to raise a child, the same is true of an ultrarunner. And I have the most incredible badass village around me. 

27:57:01. 100 miler debut. Still cannot believe it. But proudly: we did it. 



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