I had not planned on running this race this year, I had very little time to prepare for it, and I nearly did not make it to the start line. However, I have found that more often than not, this is a recipe for success.
Returning home after a disappointing DNF in the Transgrancanaria in March I contemplated giving up ultrarunning, and maybe chase a sub 3 marathon instead. Having DNF-ed three consecutive ultramarathons since the North Downs Way 100 last year, my first 100 mile finish, I started thinking that maybe I am not cut out for this ultrastuff. Then I got an email from Centurion Running, announcing that the wait list for the Thames Path 100 had been reopened, and that anyone who entered within the next couple of days would be guaranteed a place. Immediatly I felt some butterflys in my stomach. I made it to Henley in the TP100 2014, when a knee injury sustained in just a month before forced me to drop. Despite being in pain for most of the 9 hours I was running my memories from the TP were positive, in large parts due to all the fantastic volunteers who looked after the runners so well. The Thames path was on my do-over list for 2017, a list that is becoming alarmingly long, but maybe I could do it this year instead? I had already been training all winter for the Transgrancanaria, completing the TP would both mean that all this training would not be wasted, and give me a much needed mental boost. My coach, Sondre Amdahl, agreed, and my sister Sara immediatly volunteered to crew (a few seconds after reminding me that after the NDW, where I picked up yet another knee injury, I had sworn to never run a 100 miler again).
With just 6 weeks to prepare I picked up my training again, switching mountains trails for flatter coastal paths, and throwing in some speedwork as I was hoping for a sub-20 hour finish. The rest was easy to organise, I already had all the compulsory gear, knew which flights to get from Norway (this being my 10th trip to the UK in connection with a race since 2014), which shoes to use, which b&b to book, and where to get vegan food at the start and finish. The weather forecast said it was to be unexpectedly cold, but hey, I live in Norway, more than half my running wardrobe consists of thermal tops and long tights.
Five days before the start I woke up with a sore throat and a runny nose. I had managed to get through all winter without picking up a single cold only to get one now. Three days before I was actually sent home from work and told to go to bed. Two days before I felt better, and was pretty sure the cold would clear completely by Saturday. It did not, and I felt pretty rotten again the day before, but I did not allow myself to think «I will give it a go» as I did in 2014. Instead I was thinking it would be a rough and painful 100 miler, and steeling myself for it.
Saturday morning was sunny and glorious, and as the kit check and bib pick up was done in a few minutes there were plenty of time to chat with runner friends, old and new, before the start. One of the first persons I met was Flavien, who I got to know in connection with the 2014 TP, then Rafael, ditto, and then I ran into a large group of Norwegians, all of them running their first 100 miler (I think).
Before I got the cold I had talked about having 19 hours as my goal. With a cold a thought that might be too hairy, but I had still printed a schedule for this finishing time and put in my race pack. At the start I told everyone i chatted to that my main goal was to finish within 24 hours, but that I would be happy just to finish, and I meant it. When we started I just tried to settle into a comfortable pace. I checked my Suunto a couple of times, but remembered from NDW last year that it tends to underestimate the pace when set at a less accurate GPS setting, which caused me to open a little too hard in that race. When I saw the other Norwegian lady, Hilde, disappear ahead I was tempted for a moment to give chase, but then told myself that we still had 99% of the race left and my present position did not matter. I stuck to my plan to maintain steady pace for as long as possible, and instead chatted with Flavien until he decided to slow down to conserve energy for later. I soon found some other runners to chat with, four or five nice gentlemen, including Norwegian fellow Kim. I was maybe a little bit to busy chatting, because at mile 5 I tripped on a kerb and did a belly flop on the tarmac. Thank goodness I always include a lot of burpees in the fitness classes I teach, so thanks to muscle memory I escaped with a stubbed toe and a grazed knee.
Another contributing factor to the fall might have been my hamstrings, which felt stiff and sore. My hamstrings have felt like this on and off during my training, but usually improves with rest, of which I had had plenty before the race due to my cold. I could feel the tightness altering my stride, and struggled to clear kerbs and speed bumps in the road. I had thought I would struggle with my airways, but instead it seemed that it would be my hamstrings that would plague me throughput the 100 miles. I focussed on the views and sights along the course to take my mind off. There were plenty to look at, and fellow runners and I speculated about house prices and what it would be like to have your coach shouting at you from a bike while running, like the rowers on the river had . Soon the weather also became a distraction.
The forecast said it would rain at around 3 pm, but between check point 1 and 2 it started pouring down.I put my waterproof on, but of course then the sun came out again and I felt a bit too warm. At cp 2 I therefore took it off, only for it to start pouring down again. A few minutes later it started hailing too,sending most of the runners around me who still had not put their jackets back on running for cover amongst the trees and shrubs along the path. I passed another female runner still wearing just a t-shirt, and suddenly felt really old as I fought the urge to utter something along the lines of «cover up dear, or you will catch a chill». Well, I am nearly 40, so I guess it is just a matter of months or so before I will actually start to say those things.
After the hail storm had passed the sun came out again, and we had perfect running weather for the rest of the daylight hours. Another thing that was perfect, or at least very near, was the check points. As soon as I approached the volunteers were ready to take my waterbottles and top them up. I am in the habit of always bringing enough food in my pack to be self sufficient for the whole race, but with Centurion Running this is not necessary as they provide an excellent spread, catering for all diets. Eating energy bars and solid foods on the run was uncomfortable with my cold, so I stuck to gels, vegan jelly sweets and pieces of mint cake between CPs, and then grabbed more belly filling foods like bananas and potatoes at check points, and water melon, grapes and strawberries to satisfy my usual cravings for fresh fruit. I saw vegan falafels and wraps which looked really tempting, but not with my mouth full of mint cake. Fellow vegan runner Kate Jayden put pictures on Instagram of vegan peanut fudge and cake she found at CPs, but either I did not spend enough time there to find these delicacies, or they were put out later for the mid- to back of the pack runners to enjoy.
For the first few hours I had no idea about my position in the race, neither overall or among the ladies, but I thought it looked like there were quite a few runners ahead of me on the path. At CP4 I sent Sara a text message to tell her where I was. Remembering that I had to sit down in a field and wait for her to catch up with me when she was to pace me in the NDW I thought it best to get in touch early-ish to give her an idea of my pace. We had decided that she was to meet me at the bridge crossing the Thames in Goring, at approximately 70 miles. Sara sent me a message back saying I was doing well, in third place amonst the women, with Hilde approximately six minutes ahead. By the time I read it I had caught up with Hilde, she literally jumped out of the bushes onto the path in front of me at around mile 40. Hilde complained about calf pain that had started early in the race, she had in fact considered dropping at CP1, and worried about her kidneys, which she had had problems with before, but she was determined to press on at least to Henley. We ended up running together to Henley, the half way point, and arrived there after approximately 8 hours and 20 minutes.
At Henley I ended up spending nearly half an hour, far more time than I had intended. Some of it the time was spent attending to blisters and hot spots on my feet, and a quick change of clothing to prepare for the freezing night time temperatures that was forecast, but also I was simply myself. Any non-ultra runners stumbling into the tent by accident would probably have ran away screaming at the sight: 5-6 runners wolfing down vegan pasta (I did not see anyone choosing the meat option while I was there) whilst comparing blisters and being in various states of undress. I also had my first coffee not only of the day, but of the week! Yes, I gave up caffeine for the whole week before the TP100 in order to maximise the ergogenic effect during the race.
Having been fed, caffeinated, taped, and after picking the most tempting goodies from my drop bag, I started on the last half. My legs felt much better, the tightness in my hamstrings seemed to have gone, and I had more energy than earlier in the race. Maybe it was the rest, maybe the food, but I hope it was the caffeine doing the trick. Giving up a 5 cup a day caffeine habit whilst nursing a head cold had meant a LOT of suffering, it had better be worth it! As grass became the dominant surface underfoot aches and pains in my feet also settled down.
I could se Sam Robson, whose blog I have been following since I started running ultras, disappearing ahead of me . I had left Henley before Hilde, and she had said goodbye and been certain that we would not see each other again until Oxford, which meant that I was currently in second place. Not for long though, after less than half an hour Hilde popped up again, and we ended up running together yet again. It was nice having company, we chatted and worked as a team when it came to navigation, both being worried about going off course and racking up bonus miles. I had had some small detours earlier in the day, but that had probably only cost me five minutes, nothing to worry about.
As it got dark we carried on running for a while without putting our headtorches on, and I found it quite enjoyable. I could see a runner ahead turning around, probably hearing our voices and puzzling at not seeing any lights on the trail behind him. When we decided it was time to put our headtorches on Hilde got an unpleasant surprise; her headtorch was no longer in her back pack, it had either fallen out or been left behind at the kit check, so she had to use her back up torch. Thank goodness Centurion insists that all runners must carry two light sources, and not just extra batteries!
Sara met me on the bridge in Goring, as planned, and seemed to have enjoyed hanging with the other crews. We chatted a bit, and then I explained what I wanted/needed her to do. Sara had been paying attention to the schedule, and could tell me I was bang on for a 19 hour finish. I told her I expected I would have to start taking walking breaks at some point, but for the time being I wanted us to keep going at an even pace, covering at least 5 miles per hour. When I met Hilde at mile 40 I also caught up with a runner I recognised from NDW last year, whom I shall call Monkey Man due to the stuffed toy he carries in his back pack, and the fact that we never introduced ourselves. I noticed he was speeding ahead of us several times, only to start walking and fall behind again a little later. It turned out he was using a run/walk strategy, walking for 2 minutes at the start of every mile, then running until his watch beeped again. I thought this was a good idea, and told Sara to do something similar when necessary.
Sara took her task seriously, running like a metronome ahead of me. I could not always keep up with her, so sometimes I had another runner between me and her, but as long as she was within shouting distance I was happy. While I had chatted with Hilde, we now ran in more or less complete silence.
At the CP at mile 85 (officially, I have a feeling some of the check points after Henley were further out than the distance listed) I suddenly noticed how cold it had become. I had to get Sara to open the my gel and chocolate wrappers for me, having lost all dexterity in my upper limbs. I felt like a child needing help from an adult. However, all it took to get nice and warm again was for me to put my Inov8 RaceUltra jacket on over my thermal top.
As we were leaving we became confused. To get to this check point we left the Thames Path, and had gone past a set of traffic lights. To get back on the path we had to backtrack, but there were multiple traffic lights and we took a wrong turn. We backtracked and started following some other runners, only to realise they were going into the CP, not leaving it. One of those runners were my running companion from earlier, Hilde. I was currently in second position, just as in the NDW, where I had slipped to third as I slowed down a lot. I wanted to hang on to the second place this time, so whenever Sara asked if I needed to walk I said no, and we kept running. I also decided to stop at the last check points just long enough for my number to be registered, and to make do with the food in my pack. I had plenty left.
The last half of the Thames Path 100 has rougher terrain than the first half, even a couple of small hills between Reading and Goring. As we approached Oxford the ground became rougher and rougher, having been churned up by cyclists and livestock whilst soggy, and then dried into a hard and bumpy surface. It was quite tiring, and in the dark my feet got quite beat up, as the distance between my foot and the ground or the angle of a slope was not always as anticipated. The temperature was near freezing, and dense fog in some places meant the light from our headtorches hardly reached the ground. At the last CP we were told that the last five miles was mostly tarmac, just one more mile of grass to go. I was glad to hear it, and told Sara that when we reached the tarmac I wanted to increase the speed and really push towards the finish line. Sara had run this section before while in Oxford for a conference, and thought it was more than a mile left on grass. Sara was right. The people at the CP had got it the wrong way round, it was 4 miles of grass and 1 mile of tarmac. Between 4 and 3 miles from the finish the markers disappeared, and as the path forked several times we slowed down in stead of speeding up, not wanting to get lost so close to the finish. Then a piece of tape showed us we were going the right way, more due to luck than skill I suspect, and Oxford appeared before us. As we turned left into the Queens College’s sports ground and saw the finish line I started really sprinting, but so did my pacer, and she ended up blocking me! I crossed the finish line in 19 hours 11 minutes, not very many minutes behind the goal I had set before getting ill, and got my second 100 mile – 1 day buckle. The sun was rising, and it made for a beautiful background for my finishline photo. My watch said I had been running for 104 miles, of which I think 2 miles were due to veering off course here and there, and 2 miles were to due GPS inaccuracy.
Inside the club house my name was added to the board, and hot drinks and vegan chilli provided. Looking at the board there were some impressive times indeed, a new course record for both men and women, and an all time best 100 mile time for females in any Centurion race. Samantha Amend, who was first female, was so fast I did not even catch a glimpse of her back at the start. The battle for 2nd and 3rd was much more nervewracking, as Hilde and I had come to the check points mid course just seconds apart. We did not have to wait long for Hilde to appear at the finish either, she crossed the line 20 minutes after me, after 19 hours 34 minutes.
Just as at Henley, the atmosphere at the finish was amicable and relaxed, with new finishes walking through the door at regular intervals and joining us at the big table. After an hour I started to feel an urge to shower and go to bed, so I said goodbye to Hilde and made for the door. Outside my cold suddenly came back with a vengeance, and I was bent over with a coughing fit that progressed into dry heaving and then vomiting. Surprisingly I managed to hold onto the food.
Lying down in bed turned out to be less relaxing than expected. Whilst running I had not really had any aches and pains, at least not in the second half. When I laid down however, my knees started to ache, my glutes started to cramp, and my toes were so sore I could not bear them to touch the sheets. After a couple of hours I gave up, and we walked back to the sports ground (we were staying in a b&b just across the street) and cheered for the runners who finished around the 25 and 26 hour mark, amongst them Norwegians Gregorz and Kristian. (Kim, whom I had been running with early in the race finished in around 20,5 hours, and Tomas, who organises Ecotrail Oslo, had crossed the finish line in just under 25 hours.) As we left to eat lunch I just missed Flavien’s finish. It turned out the knee problems which plagued him last year returned during the race. As he has signed up for the grand slam this year he forced himself to finish, but had to slow down a lot and ended up struggling with both hypothermia and knee pain. He did get to the finish before the cut off though, with just 20 minutes to spare. I am equally impressed, if not more so, by the guys at the back, who really struggled and more or less crawled to the finish, as I am with those who set new course records at the front. Fingers crossed Flavien’s knee improves in time for the SDW100 in June.
After the North Downs Way last year I said never again, WSER excepted. (WSER have never really been on my bucket list, but realising that Centurion’s races are qualifiers for this event I could not resist putting my name into the lottery.) I also thought that maybe 50 miles suits me better than 100, having won the 80k Ecotrail Oslo last year, and realising that my split time at Knockholt Pound would have been good enough to get onto the podium in the NDW50. The second half of the NDW100 was less impressive, first my knee gave out, then my hip, and several times my legs just refused to run. I did not have walking breaks because I chose to, but because they were absolutely necessary. After the NDW my right knee and hip was more or less paralysed for several days, I struggled with knee pain for months after, and incomplete recovery forced me to drop out of the 3×3000 in the UK Sky Race series in October. This 100 miler was completely different, so much so that I am actually contemplating signing up for the grabd slam next year! After some niggles in the first half it turned around in the second, I had energy left at the end, no major aches and pains, and I was mobile enough to move around Oxford in the afternoon, albeit at an annoyingly slow pace. The day after I could negotiate stairs the normal way, and now, coming up to a week after, my muscles feel more or less recovered. My left ankle is swollen, and it appears the tibialis anterior tendon is inflamed, but that has also been improving daily.
Looking at the split times I am also very happy about the way the race progressed. I moved up steadily in the rankings along the way, from 34th at CP3 to 16th overall at the finish, and from 4th or 5th female to 2nd. I managed to run for the whole 100 miles, any walking breaks was whilst donning or doffing my waterproofs or fishinbg something to eat out of my pack. My pace slowed by about 2 min per mile from the beginning to the finish, but everyone ahead of me, except Craig Holgate, slowed by exactly the same amount. The fact that my body tolerated the flat course of the Thames Path so well bodes well for my participation in the equally flat 90k Ultravasan in August. I have heard the opinion that a flat course takes a heavier toll on the body than a hilly one, and was fearing that the Thames Path would leave me in even more pain than the North Downs Way did.
Whatever the reason, better pacing, cooler temperature, more mileage in my legs, previous experience from a 100 miler, having a coach versus making my own training plans, a flat versus a hilly course – this 100 miler was completely from my first, and much more enjoyable. I am also superhappy just to have finished my first ultramarathon since August last year, and to be able to cross the TP100 off my do-over list. A finish was all I needed to get my motivation back to continue with ultramarathons, and to get a podium finish in under 20 hours was just a really, really big bonus.
Thank you Centurion Running for putting on yet another brilliant running event, I expect I will be at the start line in one of your races again in the not too distant future.
Centurion Running’s race report: http://www.centurionrunning.com/results/2016/tp100-2016-race-report/
TP100 2016 results: http://www.centurionrunning.com/live/2016-tp100-live/
Write up in Kondis (in Norwegian): http://www.kondis.no/mari-mauland-og-hilde-ackenhausen-paa-pallen-i-thames-path-100miles.5871244-127695.html