Friday night a couple of weeks ago I was packing for my 4th attempt at the Thames Path 100 mile race. I think I was the most relaxed I had ever been before a 100 miler. I knew I was familiar with the course, that even though I had finished in a very respectable 16.55 last year I could probably run even faster on a good day, and although I have struggled with an Achilles injury for most of the winter I had had a really good training period in March and April, so worries about my fitness had also settled. Tough interval sessions on the treadmill had started to feel comfortable, and in a half marathon a month before the Thames Path I improved on my time from last year and ran under the old course record. (Unfortunately someone else ran even faster.)
The morning before the race I ran the first few miles of the course with my sister, who as usual traveled with me as crew. It was a beautiful, sunny morning, and I was running with a huge grin on my face, pointing out how lush and green it was along the path, and doing my best to persuade Sara to sign up for next year’s race. My legs felt fantastic, and I did not want to turn around after just over two miles, I wanted to run the whole distance to Oxford at once instead.
The morning of the race was even warmer and sunnier – no need for a jacket or trousers as we walked from our hotel to the start. The registration process was smooth as usual, and the last hour before the race spent chatting with other runners and crew. Some I got to know during last year’s grand slam, some I had met at other races, and some were people I am friends with on Facebook but had never met in real life.
Initially when I signed up for this year’s Thames Path my plan was to work on achieving a marathon PB this year, and the TP was meant to be my only ultra, a fun run to stay in touch with the Centurion community and run one of my favourite courses. Then, as I ended up signing up for the whole grand slam again, my ambition became to rectify all the mistakes I made last year- such going off course and racking up bonus miles in the TP. I thought that if I could run just as strongly as last year and stay on course I should be able to finish in around 16,5 hours, which I hoped would be good enough for a podium place. With a women’s field this year including course record holder Samantha Amend, GUCR record holder Cat Simpson, Norwegian 24 hour record holder Therese Falk that was not to be taken for granted.
During the first few miles my main preoccupation was to do with my race vest. I have used it lots of times before, but suddenly realized that as I bought it last autumn I had only used it in combination with long sleeved tops and jackets. Now that I was wearing a sleeveless top with quite thin straps I became aware that it was jumping around quite a lot, chafing my collar bones and neck. After lots of attempts at adjusting it I ended up stuffing my arm warmers, which due to the heat I did not need, under the straps of my sports bra. Chafing problem nearly solved (I still ended up with a huge sore on my right collar bone) I started paying more attention to my pace.
In the first and second hour I covered 12 km/h. I was worried this was a little too fast, but if felt comfortable. I also kept a much closer than normal eye on my heart rate, making sure it stayed well below threshold. I made no attempts at catching runners in front of me or match the pace of runners passing me. The rising temperature, stops at aid stations to take on food and fluids, and increasing traffic both on the roads and the footpath as the day progressed meant that my pace started to drop a little in the next two hours, as expected. The first 26,2 miles was covered in 3h 43 min – exactly the same as last year. It looked as though my goal time was achievable, and I expected to be at the half way point at Henley after around 7,5 hours.
Another thing I was conscious of was my eating. I know that eating both early and regularly decreases the chances of stomach problems later in a race, so I made a conscious effort at doing both, letting no more than 60 minutes pass without taking something either from my own supplies or the aid stations. Using a combination of gels, raisins, jelly sweets, fruit and sports drink I estimated that I was getting close to 200 Kcal an hour, which is what I was aiming for. I was also conscientious with regards to electrolytes, popping electrolyte tabs into one bottle, and energy drink powder with both carbs and electrolytes into the other.
Usually the sections of the Thames Path that goes through the towns along the river are among my favourites as the stretches of road mean you can increase your pace, however this time the heat reflecting off the tarmac and buildings made it very hot and uncomfortable. I talked to one runner after the race who had a thermometer attached to his backpack, and he said he had recorded a high of 36 º C! I watched dogs swimming in the river enviously. If we had been running along the coast, or if I hadn’t noticed the warnings on Centurion’s website about the dangers of Weil’s disease, I definitely would have dived in. (The people living near the river seemed to either not care or know about Weil’s, as I met several in swimming costumes who definitely looked as though they intended to go for a swim). Luckily the guys at the aid station at Dorney after 30,5 miles had adapted to the weather an offered suncream and ice lollies. I wanted to stay there and eat them all (the ice lollies, that is), but settled for one and hoped it had enough calories to get me to the next check point as the heat now was so intense that I did not feel like eating anything. I also filled my bottles with Tailwind as my own supplies of electrolyte and energy drink had run out at this point.
Running through Marlow I had a little detour as I lost sight of both the Centurion markers and the official Thames Path acorn signs. However, after crossing the river I found them again (I think someone might have removed the markers on the other side of the bridge, Centurion usually puts up lots of signs and arrows at bridge crossings), and also saw Cat Simpson on the path in front of me. I had been told I was in second place after Samantha, but Cat was probably only a few minutes behind and caught me while I was on my little detour. I made no efforts to catch up with her, I just tried to maintain an even pace and keep my heart rate at a sustainable intensity. However, running along a road some miles after I saw that I was closing the gap and that Cat was slowing down. Some people walking along the road noticed it to and starting cheering. «Ooh, you’re going to catch her! Go, go, go!». Suddenly the heat felt extra intense, and I had to stop and drink before being able to continue. Rounding a corner I saw Cat again, she was walking and obviously in discomfort. I asked her if she was ok, and she replied she had a foot injury that was bothering her. Soon after she stopped to meet with her crew who was waiting for her along the road. I continued on, and half a mile or so later flopped down into a chair at the Hurley aid station at 44 miles.
At Hurley I intended to guzzle down as many cups of coke as the volunteers were willing to give me, as I was feeling low in energy and very aware that I had not managed to eat anything since the previous aid station (where I think I only had some coke and water melon). However, after the first cup I suddenly felt unwell, and soon after what seemed like all the foods and fluids I had taken in during the whole day found their way up again. I had sweated a lot, but there was still a huge volume of fluids coming up.
During last year’s grand slam I experienced stomach problems (vomiting) in three of the four races, and when running the Bislett 24 hour race in November I had also been sick. At Bislett I discovered that a cup of really salty vegetable broth removed the nausea and made me able to keep down foods. I had therefore put loads sachets of instant miso and vegetable soup in my drop bag for Henley. As vomiting has always occured around 70 miles or later in a race I had not really considered that this could occur before the half way mark, but luckily I had still slipped a miso soup sachet in amongst the supplies I was carrying from the start too, just in case.
The volunteers at Henley were wonderful. Nici positioned herself between me and the path while I was vomiting to give me a little privacy. I was then placed in a chair with cold compresses on my neck. Nici had to leave shortly after, but I heard her give the others strict orders that I had to sit for at least five minutes before being allowed to leave. At the A100 last year Nici told me off for taking too long breaks and kicked me out every time I was at the race HQ in Goring, so I must have looked pretty rough at Hurley.
My sister was supposed to meet me with food and soup at the crew access point after Wallingford (77,5 miles), so I sent her a status update while sipping my miso soup to let her know that her services might be required earlier than anticipated. As an afterthought I also sent the same message to Sondre Amdahl. He used to be my coach, but this year is acting more as a mentor/advisor with regards to my likely participation in WSER, and I had promised to let him know how the Thames Path went.
When my five minutes were up and I had managed to keep down both the miso soup and some fruit I decided to continue on my way. I hoped that the soup had settled my stomach, and that if I could manage to eat properly at Henley there was a chance that I could still finish quite strong.
I had only been running for a few minutes when a runner that looked familiar came bounding towards me from the opposite direction. It was Sondre! No, he had not disapparated Harry Potter style from Norway upon receiving my message, he was already in the area and roaming the course together with Elisabeth Barnes looking for his coached athletes. He gave me some ginger for the nausea, told me that I looked better than some of the other runners he had met, and then turned around saying he would run ahead of me to Henley.
I was still feeling sick as I plodded along and I did not manage to eat anything or drink much, but at least the soup and fruit I had at Hurley stayed down. When I arrived at Henley I had not been sick again, but was feeling as if it might happen an any moment. I therefore asked for coke and somewhere to be sick when the aid station marshalls inquired what I needed. Sondre was waiting for me as he said he would, and fetched me a plastic bin liner to be sick in and my drop bag. Usually I have pasta at Henley, but this time I was not offered any hot food. I don’t know if it was because they did not have this kind of catering this year, or because they thought it would be no point in giving me any as I kept saying I was going to be sick.
As I sat there forcing down some of my vegetable soup, coke and coffee (anything to get my energy levels back up) it was actually the heat more than nausea that bothered me. I therefore laid down on the ground, hoping this would help to both cool me down and increase the likelihood of the soup staying in my stomach, and this is where I was when Therese arrived and exited. I got up and decided to push on to Reading too, sticking my head under a tap on my way out of the check point to cool off.
Just after leaving Henley I met Sondre again, who pointed out that my now restocked race vest was bouncing around a lot and adjusted it for me. I myself used all my energy willing myself not to be sick again, I could not care less about a bouncy race vest, something which I would punished for later in the evening.
Between Henley and Reading I managed to drink some Tailwind (or whatever it was I had in my bottles), but did not manage to eat at all. On the plus side I did not vomit again, but when Sarah Sawyer, who was waiting to pace her husband Tom from Reading, asked me how I felt all I managed to say was «not good». After making my way up the stairs to the check point in the rowing club I bumped into Samantha, who should have been way ahead by then, but had been forced to drop due to heat illness and stomach issues. Cat had also dropped due to her foot injury, so Therese was now in the lead, and I was still second female, as I had been most of the day. Samantha pointed out my bleeding armpits (I kept meaning to ask for some Body Glide or similar at aid stations, but somehow forgot every single time) and adviced me to drop out as well, saying it wasn’t worth sacrificing your health just for a race. I was feeling low in energy rather than nauseous then, so I decided to have some miso soup as a preemptive measure, hopefully followed by some of what was on offer at the aid station buffet. A lovely American girl (or possibly Canadian) brought me my soup, some fruit, and a glass of ice water. The ice water was lovely and I gulped it down. Maybe the volume of fluids was too large for my stomach to handle just then, maybe it would have happened regardless, but immediately afterwards I had to dash to the toilet to be sick again, bringing up all food and fluids taken aboard since Hurley. I tried again with the miso soup and some fruit, and this time it seemed to go better. I don’t know how long I spent at Reading, but it was probably more rather than less than half an hour.
While at Reading I phoned my sister and asked her to come meet me at the next crew access point at Pangbourne, just half a mile down the road from the Whitchurch aid station. I wasn’t sure exactly what I needed her for, food, morale support, pacing, or getting me to our b&b in Oxford after my retiring from the race. I still hoped that things could turn around, that maybe the combination of food and the temperature dropping could get my body to stop revolting and pick up the pace again. Even after all the vomiting I was able to run at a decent pace, and was catching runners who had left the aid station ahead of me. However, a voice in my head had started saying that dropping out would be the most sensible thing to do. Running almost 60 miles without food or fluids, especially after such a hot day, would mean a high risk of kidney problems or rabdo, and certainly a very long recovery period. I have pushed myself to finish races before while having a really bad day, vomiting blood at the Isle of Wight in 2014, and dragging myself to the finish after hardly being able to stand up after the first kilometer in Hornindal Rundt in 2016. In both those cases it took many months before I was able to resume normal training again.
On my way out of Reading the bottles in my race vest seemed to bounce a lot more than previously, and now it was not just annoying but also very painful. Later when I undressed for the shower I would find that my stomach was covered in bruises caused by my race vest, which from now on will be used in autumn and winter only. I started taking things out of the front pockets and carrying them in my hands to make it more comfortable. I tried eating one of the smoothie pouches I had stocked up on at Henley, but this just made me retch. I also soon ran out of energy, and had to implement a run/walk strategy, which is something I have never done before. Then when I stopped to turn on my head lamp I started vomiting again, and I knew it was over. My head said no, my heart said no. At that point I wanted to go to a pub and buy all their soft drinks much more than I wanted another buckle. So I met my sister, after getting lost in the housing estate at Pangbourne as usual (not that I cared about wasting a few minutes by then), and we walked up to the Whitchurch aid station at mile 65 where I declared that I wanted to drop.
Of course I had to argue for quite a few minutes with the guys there – no one is allowed to drop out without a fight at a Centurion event.
At first they pointed out that if I dropped I would no longer be in the grand slam. I was OK with that. I think I accepted that the grand slam probably would not happen back in December, as I learnt I was on the wait list for WSER just hours after signing up for the A100. Two days after that I was told I had made the Norwegian team for the European 24 hour Championships, which would come into conflict with the SW100. (And which I ended up declining due to my Achilles injury, as I had doubts over my fitness and was still semi injured as the deadline for accepting my place approached.) I had also noticed during the winter that my drive to go out and train for the grand slam was not as strong as the year before. I had not really intended to do back to back grand slams, but as the registration opened up for each of the Centurion 100 milers I got carried away and ended up signing up, afraid to miss out on the fun. However, my heart was probably not really in it.
When the grand slam argument did not work they changed tactics, pointing out that I could walk the rest of the way to Oxford and still make all the cut offs. I might even make it under 24 hours. I agreed that I could probably make it to the finish, but by doing so I would face a very lengthy recovery period at best.
Finally they pointed out that it was just 4 miles to the next aid station at Streatley. Surely I could manage four more miles, and then I could pick up my final drop bag too before dropping out. In other words: If you are going to drop, please do it at someone else’s aid station. However, there was noting I wanted or needed in that drop bag at that point, and since we were staying in a b&b just across the road from the finish in Oxford it would be even easier to retrieve it the next morning. Upon realizing I had made up my mind their attitude changed, suddenly they were worried that the 10 minute walk to the train station would be too much, and offered us a lift. We managed the little walk just fine.
I don’t regret my decision to drop. With my stomach problems starting that early in the race and not going away it was the sensible thing to do. Even though I had to drop out I still had a lovely day along the river. Best of all, I ran 65 miles without feeling any pain or stiffness in my Achilles tendons, during or after. Maybe I can finally trust that my Achilles tendons have healed and stop worrying about them?
In the week following the Thames Path there was a lot of action on the WSER wait list, and it seems like I can soon book a flight to California. Sondre have also helped me come up with a plan to get ready for the hills and heat of WSER, and hopefully avoid a recurrence of my stomach issues too. The Thames Path served to highlight some of my weaknesses – such as heat. Hopefully working on those weaknesses in the coming month will help me ensure success in the WSER. And then there is always the Arc of Attrition next year to look forward to, where heat definitely will not be an issue!