Becoming a centurion and running your first 100 mile ultra teaches you a lot about running and yourself. Here’s what I learned going triple-digit deep at the Centurion Running Thames 100.
50 miles is not half way
People often say that half way in a marathon is at mile 20 not mile 13.1 and the same logic applies over this distance. Half way in a 100 mile ultra is not when you hit 50, it’s probably as far into the race as 80 miles. This is where the challenge starts to ask the really serious questions of your mind and body, and you have to dig deeper than at any other point. A single mile starts to feel like five and, when you think about the remaining distance – and the time you expect it will take to finish – things can start to stretch out long and painful before you. How you cope when this happens will be the difference between finishing and dropping out.
A single mile will never feel so far
You might think that with two miles to go, your brain and body would move into celebration mode. By this point in the Centurion Running Thames 100, I had 2 hours to complete less than a Park Run and from mile 70 I had prayed that these last miles would be a victory plod to the big inflatable banner. It was anything but. Even at this point everything is screaming at you to stop. Right now. Just stop. There’s no place to hide from the physical pain and absolutely no relief from the mental strain. Worse, despite being able to smell the finish line, you’re in this weird limbo where there’s no way you’re not going to make it now, but at the same time there seems to be no certainty that you can make it either.
There are lots of little battles that must be won
On paper, running 100 miles looks like it’s one big battle but the truth is that it’s dozens of little skirmishes and each one must be won in turn if you’re to reach that finishing line. Making it from aid station to aid station and eating the chunked-up miles between; conquering the tree-root-rutted hills at mile 69; coping with the morning sun that’s warm enough to bring on a sweat and raise your heart rate but not hot enough for you to ditch your jacket. You don’t know you’ll be having most of these minor struggles until they’re upon you an it’s crucial to take them one at a time without worrying what might come next.
Some crazy people will eat some crazy shit on course
Seven miles into the Thames Path 100 one runner stopped to buy a cheeky ‘99 from one of the Thames’ many ice cream vans. Another was spotted slurping on Fruit Pastel ice lolly much later in the race. And then there are the sausage rolls on offer at every aid station. My stomach can just about handle a bit of watermelon, so for me the idea of chomping down a meaty pastry party snack feels weird at best, gastro-intestinal suicide at worst. But maybe that’s just me.
Watermelon is awesome
It’s full of water and sugar, it melts in the mouth and is easy on the stomach because it takes next to no digesting. Unlike oranges it’s not acidic and it clears your mouth of the nasty taste of the rest of the sugary chemical gunk you’ve been eating and drinking while simultaneously giving you an instant pep. If there’s a better refresher for the beleaguered runner I’m yet to find it.
Everything will hurt in rotation
At some point the following thought will pop into your head: ‘I feel good. I’m running well’. Immediately after this a part of your body that hasn’t previously grumbled with start to moan just enough to replace that momentary happy thought with a worry. Something like your plantar will grumble for a bit and then miraculously vanish only to be replaced by your big toe feeling a bit blistery. When that goes your hamstring might tighten. Following that your achilles will let you know it exists in a way it shouldn’t really. All of these things will take on race-threatening significance for a mile or two before disappearing. It’s like every part of your body want’s to lodge a stewards at the ridiculous task you’re asking it to do.
‘Sweat the small stuff.’
As an ultra runner, you ignore this advice at your peril because the smallest things make the biggest difference. For example, if that food you need to eat at mile 67 is tucked away in your bag on your back and not somewhere within easy reach, getting it can be a huge ordeal. In your addled state your brain will tell you that it’s too much effort to stop and take off your backpack to grab your much-needed extra fuel, so you won’t and skipping these vital calories can have big consequences. You know this but it still doesn’t make a difference. Things that in normal circumstance aren’t a problem, such as opening a packet, closing a fiddly zip or finding something in a pocket, will suddenly become major operations when fatigue kicks in. This is why it’s so important to test your kit before race day so you can spot where you need to make small changes to avoid these little niggles.
People around you will do amazing things to help you get there
From one friend who ran 17 night miles in his jeans, to another who was only supposed to run a few hours with me but ended up covering the final 34 miles, running his first ultra in doing so, via my dentist who drove 20 miles to drop off a replacement head torch as mine was broken, and my family who crewed me through the day and then got up at 5am to be there at first light, ultra running is about more than just covering some distance. The finish line is always the culmination of dozens of acts of support and kindness that all build into that one big achievement. Without these people and their selflessness I doubt I’d complete half the challenges, particularly this 100 miler.
It’s not always darkest before the dawn
Running through the night after a day of relentless forward motion is tough. Apart from the fantastic teams who man the aid stations on the graveyard shift and the wild animals you can hear on the trails, the world falls silent. I always get on odd sense of vulnerability, exposure and even loneliness knowing everyone else is either safely tucked up in the pub or in bed. I’ve heard other runners say that they find the darkest mental moments come just before the sunrise but for me the hardest part comes when you arrive at an aid station in daylight and have to leave under cover of darkness. You’re often cold and tired and the knowledge that you’ve got eight hours of blackness to wrestle with can be daunting.
If you sense a problem you must fix it immediately
This goes hand-in-hand with ‘sweat the small stuff’. The minute you sense a problem, no matter how small, you have to fix it. From a hot spot on your foot, a bit of minor bag chafe, or perhaps the sun too strong on your arms, no matter what it is, things don’t tend to get better over a 100 miles, they get much, much worse. You will always regret not doing something to sort it out sooner rather than later.
Your pacers will get the worst of you
I very nearly didn’t bother with pacers as in the past I’ve always opted to run alone but at the last minute I called in some help to see me through the wee small hours. By the time my I reached mile 66.6 and swapped my unexpected company, Adam, for the pre-planned pacer Luke, my struggles had begun. What Luke got for the next 30-something miles was the grumpy, miserable, moaning version of me. The one that wasn’t running very much, wasn’t talking very much and generally wasn’t very good company. The only time I really opened my mouth was to bark something about how fucking far it was to the next aid station. Even Luke’s ability to stay chipper in the face of Captain Grump was annoying me at times in my fatigued state! If I’m being honest I had this weird feeling that I needed him there or I wouldn’t have been able to go on but I also really didn’t want him there because he kept trying to motivate me and it was hard constantly letting him down by returning his efforts with a muffled grumble and swear words.
You might want to cry with 15 miles to go
And you won’t be the only one. Sat in an aid station at 6am with 15 miles, and lord know how many hours of plodding, left to go it will feel like the world is against you. Twenty hours of running on no sleep has a tendency to unsettle you emotionally and the slightest thing can bring on a big, blubbery, bottom-lip-wobbling meltdown. It’s ok though, because although you’re crying into a cup of tea you’re not sure you want or not, at least you’re not that runner who went to sleep behind a wheelie bin 18 miles back.
If you keep going you will get it done
There will be many, many moments as you tick down the miles, where you question your ability to get the job done. Even at mile 96 the task ahead will feel impossible. You’ll sit on a bench at some point, your head swimming with self doubt and your legs throbbing out a morse code message telling you to quit. You’ll wonder why you ever thought this ultra running lark was a good idea. In all of this emotional and physical turmoil you have to hold onto one simple thought, that if I keep going I will get it done. Because if you do, you will.
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