Most runners, even those that have run a few marathons, are unlikely to have heard of Centurion Events. My first encounter was when I crewed for my daughter Cat at the SDW50 in 2014; at that stage I had run my first 3 marathons where I naturally found the last 10k difficult and confidently stated, “never” (which my close friend Dan always reminds me about). The same year I watched all of NDW100 runners pass through the Caterham aid station, just 2 miles from my home, and in 2015 I crewed for my daughter as she successfully ran the same race which further enhanced my resolve never to run a Centurion Event. Less than a week after that I was annoyed to only be able to get on to the waitlist for the 2016 NDW50. Nici quickly assured me that I was very near the top of the list so my chances of getting in were very good.
I did realise that I had chosen the most demanding of the 50s, but living so close to the NDW I had started to become familiar with the section from Box Hill and decided that I would prefer to tackle a route where I knew exactly what to expect, and of course there would be the option to drop at Caterham and walk home!
Wind forward 8 months and just under 12 hours before the start I was in Farnham with Susie Chan and Shaun Marsden, having cheekily invited myself to spend the night at there place. Although Susie had decided not to race she drove Shaun and me the mile or so to St Polycarp’s where I immediately felt like an impostor to even be in the same room as so many amazing runners, never mind having the nerve to run with them. Although I am comfortable running 4 hour marathons, I have only run greater than that distance a couple of times; The Winter Tanners 30 miles being the furthest, 16 months ago. My three marathons in 5 weeks in February/March disrupted the training I had been doing in the Winter over the Downs, and when I resumed for 3 consecutive up-to-marathon-distance runs over the first half of the course my legs were telling me they needed some recovery time, so I listened to them and did very little running during the 3 weeks prior to this race.
Unsurprising, my number one aim was just to finish inside the 13 hour cut-off. To this end I was tempted to run with Ian Lang, who I had never met but we connected on Facebook because of our other common passion, Leicester City. Ian seems to be an expert on pacing his Centurion Events so that he stays just ahead of the cut-off at each aid station, and finishes with minutes to spare. This had tempted me, but as I was unsure how the last 5 miles would go I wanted to have more than 15 minutes to spare, so I decided to just run at a pace that felt comfortable.
My concern in the week before the run was trail or road shoes (my 67 year old knees thank me for the extra cushioning provided by road shoes). I ran the first half of the course 3 weeks ago in road shoes after there had been weeks of dry weather and the non-road sections were as hard as any road so I then decided that is what I would use. However, the heavy rain during the week before put doubts into my mind. Knowing the 2nd half of the course well I understood how slippery the mud and chalk could be, and that the fields could easily be very sticky. The dilemma really got to me and I had a terrible night’s sleep on Thursday, but on Friday morning immediately decided to go with the road shoes and give the trail ones to my crew and change at the top of Box Hill if the conditions before there made me think they would be necessary. They weren’t and I comfortably ran the whole course in my Asics.
Nutrition/hydration also concerned me. I really suffered during a couple of my long runs when it was difficult to carry enough fluids. On one I had planned, and desperately needed, a large cup of coffee at the Reigate aid station site, but the café had closed just minutes before I arrived. There was no way I would have completed the run to Caterham if a friendly couple hadn’t given me most of one of their very large cups. I regularly swapped empty water bottles for full ones with my crew; my son and daughter, Ed and Cat, who were doing it the hard way on bikes. Whilst Ed had a serious ‘dentist’s bike’, so would disappear off at the crew stations rather than just waiting for me for some extra mileage, Cat was on a single speed bike and I really do think she had to work harder to get up the hills than I did.
Being gluten intolerant (not just a lifestyle choice), I couldn’t accept the gift from the famed bacon barge and solid food wasn’t just a matter of grabbing a sandwich or wrap at each aid station. I made up five gluten free fruit-bread and strawberry jam sandwiches, cut each into quarters and stacked vertically, wrapped each slice separately so they fitted into the front packet of my pack. I ate one quarter each 4k and picked up a new slice at each crew stop. It seemed to work fine, but I never want to see another one of those sandwiches for a long time. I downed coke at each aid station and although I was carrying a plastic bag with crushed crisps did eat more at the aid stations. The requested cup of coffee was waiting for me at Reigate; I don’t usually drink coffee but am convinced there is nothing works better for me, and I even had sugar added, which I NEVER have in hot drinks.
Even with my limited experience of ultras I was well aware that hills are meant to be walked, however I wasn’t sure what comprised a hill and whether, at the beginning the rule was strictly adhered to. I knew there was a nasty incline on the road near the start and some uphill trail sections before Puttenham. I needed not have worried though; the sight of everyone walking as both of these sections came into view brought a smile to my face. (I suspect the leaders would have breezed up them and without walking.)
I am in awe of people who seem to have a photographic memory of a race, being able to remember every twist and turn and minor detail. Actually because of the spectacular nature of the course I probably remembered more of this race than most others I have run. I dislike the section from Newland’s Corner to Ranmore Common; it seems to go on forever and there is almost no variation in scenery. Also, during training runs I had convinced myself it actually had a slightly uphill gradient; of course it hasn’t and although I still dislike the section I found it easy to run. I had calculated my estimated times at the aid and crew stations, but something had gone radically wrong between 7 and 21 miles and I was way inside my estimates so my crew hadn’t arrived at Shalford or Newland’s, but they did make an unexpected and very welcomed visit to St Martha’s. After that I was within a couple of minutes at every place, except the end; it wasn’t down to targeted pacing, as I said earlier I was just running what felt comfortable.
The stepping stones before Box Hill terrified me. Every other time I have been here they have been flooded so I had to take the bridge. I decided I wanted a photo and stupidly had my phone in my hand as I crossed. I’m sure we have all been in the situation of being aware that if we dropped the phone it was gone forever; this caused me to make sure I had both feet firmly on a stone before moving onto the next one, no skipping. Sorry to the runner behind in the red top, I must have held you up.
None of the hills came as a surprise, but immediately I took my first few steps up at Box Hill the inside top of my right thigh cramped. It was here I met Steve Navesey who straightway gave me an s-cap. This, and keeping my leg straight for a minute or so, quickly overcame the problem but it did reoccur a few more times whenever I needed to lift the leg higher than it had been doing.
As I walked up Botley Hill (which actually is the highest point on the North Downs) I was greeted by Myles, a runner from my local parkrun, who had actually been following me on the live results, calculated when he expected me to be there and came along to lend his support. Seeing him was totally unexpected, and having him to chat to as I plodded up to the aid station was a great distraction. Thank you, Myles, I was genuinely touched to see you there.
I knew that the section immediately following was incredibly gnarly, and with tired legs extreme care was needed, yet a few 100m along the track I tripped. In that second or so between realising I was going to fall and hitting the ground the possible consequences flashed before my eyes, previous falls here had curtailed my running for a few weeks and it was easy to imagine an injury that would mean a DNF. Fortunately my head took enough of the impact to mean my arms and legs were ok, and of course the steps that soon followed caused the thigh cramps again.
With about 4 miles to go I was joined by the extremely experienced Tracey Watson, who had completed the TP100 just two weeks earlier and was in for the double grand slam. She turned out to be just the person I needed over the final section. Most of it is eminently runnable yet it would have been too easy to just accept that I was going to finish and walk a lot. She bullied and cursed me, demanding that I “get a jiggle on”. We passed through a herd of cows together; they seem to have positioned themselves to be as imposing as possible, although they had the whole field to choose from they occupied about 1% of it, directly on the trail. We walked through them, refusing to make eye contact and leaving a good space between us and the one or two that had turned towards us. We walked through them, refusing to make eye contact and leaving a good space between us and the one or two that had turned towards us.
The adrenaline must have kicked in as we entered the last field and I was certain I would get inside my 12 hour ‘impossible’ time, even before we spotted the finishing line in the distance, and we continued to run away from it; the legs were on automatic and were not complaining in the slightest. That changed with a vengeance after I had sat down in the village hall, and again the idea of 100 became NEVER. Thank you for keeping me going to the end, Tracy.
It was great to see my whole family waiting at the finish, and of course the one that has knowledge of running this actual route was the most pleased.
The impossible weekend continued the next day when I could drive over 100 miles north so that on Monday the impossibilities of the previous few weekends could be celebrated in Leicester when I was again on my feet for over 11 hours to witness the team I had watched for almost 60 years make an impossible dream come true for more than a quarter of a million people.
Thanks to all volunteers, I may not have said much as I passed through your aid station, but your encouragement and enthusiasm did keep me going. Centurion Event are awesome, and I do expect to be back running with you in the near future
Just before my last marathon in Istanbul I decided that as it would be almost 4 months before my next I decided needed a run in between them that wasn’t just training. Of course it couldn’t be a marathon or my A to Z project would be spoilt, and I wanted more than a half. Searching around I came across this run/race/walk. I had no previous knowledge of it (nor had my immediate running family) nor of the Long Distance Walkers’ Association (LDWA) who organise it. The Winter Tanners seemed to fit my requirements perfectly, a run that would be challenging yet not too daunting (I had toyed with the idea of Country to Capital but accepted that 45 miles was just too far…at present). It was close to home, would give me hills, tick the ‘ultra’ box I felt I should do and the timing was exactly half-way between two marathons. As one who is used to paying sometimes high entry fees for road marathons, the LDWA events are a welcomed money saver. This would have cost non-LDWA members £20 but after paying the annual membership of £13 it was just £4.
After getting used to road marathons, I was very apprehensive as the day approached. I had no real idea what to expect. Of course time on ultras doesn’t matter (but I did want to finish before it got dark). Weather could be the real problem, two years previously it had to be postponed because snow prevented marshals from reaching checkpoints. A week before this year’s race storms were forecast to cross the country, and it could have been very difficult. However when the day arrived we could not have wished for better conditions, sunny with clear blue skies, little wind and reasonable temperatures.
Having followed my ultra-running daughter Cat at many races I was looking forward to being able to run and eat, but with my gluten free requirements I knew there wouldn’t be a lot available for me. So I made sure I had supplies with me (“he’s got enough food to feed a small country” tweeted my daughter). In the end I ate very little of what I had taken, just a few squares of Waitrose caramel crispy bites. I did grab a handful for jelly babies at the first checkpoint, nachos at the second and a couple of pieces of banana at the third. I was also carrying a bottle with electrolyte and 2 small chocolate milks but only drank a couple of mouthfuls of one of the later. I did have the lemon squash at the first 2 checkpoints and coffee at the third. Also I had none of the gels I would usually have for marathons.
The big difference between this and any other race I have done was the ‘self navigation’. When dropping into the Run to Live shop in Leatherhead a couple of days before the race (I had gone over just to see how easy the instructions were to follow) they did confirm there was no signage on the course, it really was necessary to follow the detailed instructions. This is an example of them for just the first 1.7 miles.
From the pavilion entrance, facing the football pitch, TR twice to pass the pavilion on R & tennis/netball courts on L. At fence corner TL to keep courts on L. In 20Y TR on tarmac path thru treeline then TL along tarmac FP. When tarmac ends TR on XTK (FiPo HAWKS HILL). In 275Y ahd over railway & waterworks drive, & cont ahd across grassy area (shortcutting BW). Join TK from L & swing R uphill. At top of field FL & keep ahd to go thru gap in hedge & TL on BW. In 650Y cross busy RD (A246) WITH GREAT CARE & along drive opp which immed turns R past gate. In 75Y FR to pass small grass triangle on L. Cross concrete drive & tarmac pathway to cont ahd on BW with hedge on R. In 950Y pass brick barn on L & in 40Y ahd over XTK.
Runners were not supposed to start before 8.30 (looking at last year’s results many did start at exactly this time), which was my aim. But there was no official starting gun/klaxon, you just wonder up, present you card to be scanned and begin running. There was no runners waiting when I arrived at the start, so off I went. Cat started running with me, not as part of the race, just to keep me company for a while, take a few photos and do bit of gentle running before Country to Capital next week. Navigation wasn’t a problem before the checkpoint at 7.9 miles, there were always walkers or early departure runners ahead. Cat only ran to this point and my son Ed, who had decided use my run to do a day’s hill work on his bike, was waiting there. I started navigating, when I was ‘alone’ after this point, and was concerned on a couple of occasions when I had runners behind me but not visible in front, in case a took a wrong route, I didn’t want to be responsible for leading others astray. Before navigation became hard I caught up with a group of runners containing Tara Williams. I didn’t know of this doyen of the LDWA but it soon became clear that she was known to (almost) everyone else. Famed for walking every single step of the SDW100 in 2012 in 26:37 and her Harley Davidson passion, because it was my first LDWA event she allowed me a navigation ‘free pass’ so I could concentrate on watching where I was actually putting my feet rather than wondering if they were going in the right direction. Thank you Tara, one day I look forward to being like you!
The second checkpoint at 17 miles came and went, again Ed was waiting for me. The terrain of this first half hadn’t been too difficult, there had been some very muddy stretches and of course some hills but nothing as precipitous as the ones in the second half. The first was 26k in, after turning off Moon Hall Road Ewhurst where the gradient 21.6% and then over the Abinger Roughs at 37k where we hit 26.2%. Fortunately Tara was caring of those in her charge, and readily walked allowing us to keep with her (but she can walk bloody fast) and so not get lost. As the miles ticked by I was more aware that Dave Ross, who I knew was starting after me, surprisingly hadn’t yet passed us. This was a special event for Dave, his 100th ultra and despite his penchant for taking the odd wrong turn I really had expected him to have steamed past before the 38k when he did appear. Bizarrely it was just after this point that we found difficulty with the directions, we certainly did not find the ‘right fork’ only a ‘right turn’. Again Tara knew the trails/tracks so rather than carrying straight onto checkpoint 3 and arriving from the wrong direction, in order that we didn’t miss out on the ‘correct’ elevation we went down and along and up Steers Field to the checkpoint.
Hot tea/coffee and bananas/dates were available at the 25.7 mile mark, then it was the simple and quite fast homeward stretch, passing Tanners Hatch, the YMCA hostel after which the race is named. However my body seemed to know when I was over the 26.2 mile stage, because as soon as we had finished quite a fastish slightly downhill section and began a walking ascent my Adductor Magnus cramped. I did lose contact with the group as I modified my walking style, high steps with the offending leg worked and I was ready to run for the rest of the course and catch up the others. Towards the finish we were travelling back along the route we had started on 6 hours earlier. At the busy A246 I was ready and able to sprint when there was a small gap between the fast moving cars then it was downhill to touch in and finish at the pavilion, and my first ultra was over.
And what did I think? The whole experience was brilliant, running through the countryside that I have lived so close to for 30 years yet never really appreciated. The terrain was fun, the views stunning and everyone I met so friendly; and with the easy pace chatting was easy. I will certainly be running more ultras (wish I had an entry to one day of The Pilgrims), and look forward to increasing my distances.
Distance: 49.1 km
Official time: 6:26
Position: 45/209 starters/200 finishers/but how many of these ran rather than walked?)
Moving time (Strava) 5:59:57)
This was the eighth marathon in my project, one that (almost) no one would have heard about and likely to be the one with the smallest entry. The race started and ended in Aarschot, which is 40km NE of Brussels in the Flanders region of Belgium; so it followed my rules, name of the marathon in alphabetic order and a different county.
I travelled over on the earliest (hence cheapest) Eurostar possible which meant getting up at 4.15am to catch the first bus to East Croydon. One of the advantages of travelling Eurostar to Belgium is that you can then travel on to any other rail destination in Belgium for 24 hours after your arrival in Brussels, then back to Brussels for 24 hours before the return train. So I travelled to stay in Leuven overnight then to Aarschot next morning all within the rules. Leuven is the home of Stella Artois, but I did resist the temptation to have a pre-race drink in its home town. And actually when in Belgium there are too many other more preferable beers to try.
I walked to the the race HQ from the station, despite being told by locals it was a ‘”long way” and would take “too long”. 20 minutes later I was at Cafe de Knoet, its proprietor organises the race and likes to keep it small and cheap (have you run an official marathon for less than the €10 this cost? But unsurprisingly for this cost there was no medal or T shirt but there was a free beer!)
After a pre race briefing in Dutch I realised the race had started as everyone began running in the opposite direction to the way I was expecting. All I knew of the route was ” Het opzet nog steeds hetzelfde als de voorbije jaren: vier lussen van ca. 10 kilometer in het Aarschotse te combineren tot de marathonafstand” which translates as “In the Aarschotse combining four loops of approximately 10 kilometres to the marathon distance”. I had pictured a relatively flat circuit around the outskirts of the city, on roads/paths/cycle tracks and the like. Maybe I should have downloaded the gpx file available!
After a straightforward first few k with a water station at 3.5k we moved onto trails through the trees with puddles, mud, tree roots and undulations. This looped back to the same aid station then back into the trees on different trails with a considerable incline that involved some walking, as did the steeper downward section. We did return to the start at the half marathon distance, and I went through in almost the same time as Guernsey in August, 1:55. Then we set off in a different direction around two more loops which is where the problems occurred. After about 10k some of the sights seemed familiar and I was certain I had missed a marker when I arrived at a picnic table I had certainly run past before. So I doubled back, met some of the runners who were on there first trip round the section and found the marker I had missed. Back on track I set off around the final loop which started along a tow path, where the leaders were already coming in the opposite direction. Things seemed to go well, through more trees for a few more k and back onto the tow path. The road I saw approaching meant just under 3k to go, or did it? Where was the aid station? I followed the marker and again realised I had been this way before. So I again doubled back on myself, met one of the accompanying cyclists who said I had missed a turn-round arrow after rejoining the tow path!
It’s amazing how the brain reacts to knowing you are not going to get ‘a time’; after my two errors, both totally my own fault (the signage was comprehensive and very clear!) it wouldn’t let me push myself. But as long as I could achieve one of the aims I set after my first marathon in Athens, to run all subsequent ones faster than that one, I would be happy. The final 3k were probably the easiest part of the course, and they were the extra distance that made my 8th marathon my first (mini)ultra. I finished with a distance of 45.28k in 4:42:48 I was 42nd out of 48 finishers, but the only one to run the extra distance! The whole event was sufficiently casual that you could decide how far you wanted to run at any time during the run. I saw bib number 102 which suggests less than half of those that started choose to complete the whole distance.
I drank with a very convivial bunch of local hardcore runners, must of whom had many more than 100 marathons to their name. They kept me long enough so I didn’t have time to stop in Leuven for a Stella, I ended up getting the last possible train to Brussels that connected with my Eurostar booking.
Just 3 weeks after this is my last marathon of the year, Istanbul. This is the shortest interval between marathons for me, maybe it’s good I didn’t have any inclination to push it over the last 10k of the run, need to have something left in the legs for my two continents run.
Last year I, together with daughter Cat and son-in-law Jon, ran half of the Croydon Ultra (i.e. 15 miles, 24k). The conditions were appalling, with torrential rain meaning we were running through streams along pavements. Certainly 15 miles were enough.
This year we all entered it again. Cat and Jon were going for the full 30 while I was aiming for more than 20 miles, using it as more preparation for my 1st marathon. I did not want to do 42.2k (or more) as I want to save that distance in an official run until the big day in October. The conditions could not have been more different from last year (well of course they could, we could have been running in knee deep snow). It was in the mid-20s C when we started out (early, at 8.30 just to try to miss some of the hottest part of the day) and climbed to at least 30°C during the 2nd half of the course.
The route was two 15 mile loops, starting in Lloyd Park and heading south through well shaded woodland tracks until the first watering point at The White Bear; with plenty of liquids, food , gels and food (never thought I’d be enjoying Nachos in the middle of a run). Then it was back on mainly footpaths to the start/finish. We did manage to miss a couple of turnings (although a lot of the course was marked with arrows on the ground, at one key point it wasn’t…which meant we ended up doing 28k instead of 24k for the first half of the course.
The 2nd half took us up north towards Catford mostly on well signed pavements or cycle tracks. Cat and Jon had quite rightly left me behind, and I decided how far I wanted to go before turning back. My calculations were amazingly precise, and when I ran over the ‘finishing line I kept going for a further 5m until my GPS Kalenji clicked over to 40.00k; that did provide some amusement for the few spectators. So, under conditions that I hope not to experience in Amsterdam, I have achieved a distance which I know will allow me to complete 42.2k, unless anything untoward happens. Have I also proved that footwear isn’t as important as we think it is. For this run I wore an old pair, that I almost discarded 6 months ago and now use just for Parkruns. They have been through the washing machine twice and have real signs of wear. They served me perfectly well on this run, and I also used them for 7 Parkuns, 35k, on the South London longest parkrun 2 weeks earlier.
Cat and Jon arrived soon after, both having successfully completed their first Ultra actually running nearer 33 miles rather than the 30 expected, an amazing achievement for both of them under such extreme conditions.
And we were in time to shower and watch the other amazing achievement of the day with Andy Murray’s win all of the more coincidental as earlier in the year Cat and Jon meet him at Wimbledon the day after the lost in the Australian Open final.