“Oh my good god! What have you done?” A young nurse has just poked my little toe, spreading it far enough from its swollen neighbour to reveal that one Little Piggy isn’t very happy. Where there’s supposed to be skin, there’s only giblet-esque raw, purple-red-yellow oozing unpleasantness. The nurse’s face twists into a look of horror, something you don’t expect to see on a person who works at the Minor Injuries Walk-In of a major NHS hospital. And it’s got me worried.
Her question should be easy to answer but what I’ve just done to myself seems a bit ridiculous under the hospital lights. I consider a few ways to explain. “I smashed my toe into the ground over 170,000 times in 26 hours and now there’s no skin on it’. ‘I’ve just run 100 miles and for 40 of them, I ignored the burning hell-pain in my little toe that I now realise was all the skin coming off’. In the end I opt for the straight forward, ‘I did it running 100 miles’. The fact that I’ve chosen to spend my Bank Holiday weekend doing this turns her look of horror into one of confusion.
“You did what? That’s insane! Well, you’re the first person we’ve seen today with a serious problem,” she adds, almost with a sense of gratitude, like I’ve actually made giving up her Bank Holiday worthwhile. This doesn’t make me feel better.
It’s now 29 hours since I crossed the finish line of my first 100 mile ultra marathon and this is not where I thought I’d be, clutching a fistful of antibiotics for a serious foot infection and scaring medical staff with my raw pig-in-blanket toe. I had hoped to be enjoying a victory pint somewhere. But this is ultra running and if I’ve learnt one thing in the last 50 odd hours it’s that anything can – and will – happen.
From trail to treatment table
Getting to this hospital treatment table took some doing. Two days before the Centurion Running Thames Path 100 I was struck down with a serious stomach bug that threatened to put me out of the race completely, wasting 6 months of training in the process. Right when I should’ve been loading my body with good nutrients for the road ahead, I was screaming my breakfast, lunch and a load of stomach lining down the big white phone.
The nurse’s face twists into a look of horror, something you don’t expect to see on a person who works at the Minor Injuries Walk-In of a major NHS hospital. And it’s got me worried.
Ninety-nine per cent certain that my race was over before it had started, I took to my bed, drank as much water as possible and hoped for a miracle. With a day until the race, that minor miracle happened. I stopped being sick and was able to start eating little bits. I hurried my kit together and hoped that another 24 hours would fix me. Fortunately, by the morning of the race the stomach cramps had gone and I felt ‘normal’, if a little concerned about how my body would react to being asked to run 100 miles after taking a beating. There was only one way to find out.
Buckling up for the Centurion Thames Path 100
I’ve stood on a lot of start lines in the past eight years and, aside from day one of the Marathon des Sables, none is as daunting as this one. I take comfort in being surrounded by my family, my crew, Team Alger, all dressed in bright blue t-shirts to match my Azzuri Italian football shirt, the same one I wore when I dropped out of the North Face Lavaredo. My wife, son, sister, mum, niece and nephew are all pumped and positive, feeding me words of encouragement. Somehow, this positive ‘it’ll all be ok’ vibe makes it feel a little like the morning of my wedding day. I’m surrounded by the people I love all wishing me well but I’m nervous as hell.
I do what I can to project calm and savour the lovely, bright sunny morning on the banks of the Thames in Richmond. The familiar surroundings of the start help a lot too. We’re not only starting from a place I know brilliantly well but I’ve run the first 50 miles of the route a number of times before. This bit will be ok, I tell myself. You know this. It’s just what you always do.
The sloping river banks behind me start to fill with runners of all shapes, sizes and ages. Final checks are made, pockets and unpacked and restocked, chords and tightened, bottles adjusted. It’s hard not to look at other people’s kit choices and wonder if you’ve made any glaring errors.
I check my watch. Fifteen minutes until gun time. I tie my shoe laces. Then do it again. And then two things happen that will eventually shape my race. The Centurion Running race photographer spots my blue-shirted clan and asks if he can get a group photo of me and the crew. As we gather on the steps it creates a bit of a stir in front of the other runners. After we’re done the snapper turns to me and plants a seed in my head that’ll grow over the next 26 hours.
“Make sure you get to Oxford,” he jokes. “Because I’m going to need the other shot to go with this.” With one simple sentence he’s just made it impossible for me to quit. I’m no longer anonymous, there is now another person who’ll be keeping an eye out for me 100 miles away in Oxford. Forget my family, I can’t let this guy down.
Then right before we’re about to have the race briefing, my ultra running dentist, Dave, and his ultra running wife appear from nowhere. They’ve come down to see me off. It’s a brilliant moment that sends me into the start huddle of beards, baldies and brave souls with a spring in my step. At this point I don’t know it but I’ll see Dave again before the day is out and he’ll save my race.
As we wait for the gun to fire, I go over my race plan in my head. It doesn’t take long as it’s one number. 12 minute miles I tell myself, 12 minute miles. This isn’t a time for heroics, what’s needed here is some steely discipline that I’ve so often failed to muster in the past. Relentless forward motion for somewhere around 24 hours.
Finally we’re off and I plod forward at a snail’s pace happy to be at the back of the pack and let everyone move off into the distance. Experience tells me I’ll see quite a lot of these people again.
Tick follows tock follows tick…
Now as I’m sure you can imagine a lot happens in the time it takes to run 100 miles. And if I’m honest large chunks of it have condensed in my post-run mind into one image of a sparkling river Thames banked by a green-brown blur of beautiful flat trails. It’s a relentless tap tap tapping along hours of breathtaking river views, past unbelievable houses with gardens that run right to the river’s edge.
Along the way it’s hard not to invent backstories for the kind of people who must live in these dream homes. Sometimes we see them going about their Bank Holiday business largely unaware of what we’re doing. It feels like everyone should know what we’re undertaking here but only a few passers by ask. Each time you tell someone their jaw drops, their disbelief spurs you on.
Inevitably you spark conversations with other runners. Each has their own reason for being here and a unique battle to fight, but the first question is always “Have you done this before?” For me, the most welcome reply is “No, this is my first 100 miles.” Knowing you’re not the only one plodding into the unknown offers comfort.
The miles tick by slowly, through the odd town centre, up and down over river bridges, past locks and perfect Bank Holiday sun-drenched beer gardens. Sip some water, eat a gel, swallow a salt tablet, eat some nuts. Go through the checks and ask yourself ‘How are my feet? My legs? My stomach?’ All good. Keep moving. Rinse and repeat.
Occasionally there are moments that puncture your inner monologue. Like spotting one runner 7 miles into the race at an ice cream van treating himself to a 99 with a Flake. Or randomly bumping into a runner from San Francisco I’d emailed a couple of times after a colleague put us in touch. Then there are the moments that change your race. The first comes early for me, just four hours and 20 miles into my race. As I’m approaching the first crew point where I’ll get to see Team Alger for the first time, Dave my dentist appears on the path beside me.
“Fancy seeing you here,” he says all breezy like this is normal. “Are you following me?” I ask back. “I’m starting to get worried now mate.” When we finally reach the rowdy Team Alger I realise that Dave has just driven 20 miles to drop off a spare head torch for me after my wife told him mine was playing up. It’s a piece of selflessness that blows me away. It goes straight into the ‘Got To Finish Now’ column right under the race photographer’s comment. Later on I’ll discover that my head torch is actually completely busted and Dave’s act of kindness is the only thing that saves me from a very dark night.
As the first marathon ticks by I’m moving well and I’ve stuck to the 12 min/miles perfectly. I’m clocking five miles an hour and feeling great about it. At various points along the way I see my rowdy crew. At each stop I give my 1.5 year-old son a quick sweaty cuddle, run a stretch with my 8-year-old nephew, and scoff down some watermelon. It’s a massive boost having these guys along for support and apparently not just for me. Throughout the race other runners clock my name on the back of my shirt, realise that the noisy Team Alger are with me, and tell me how lucky I am to have such great support. I look at some of the people who are out here doing this utterly alone and I figure they’re made of different stuff to me.
Halfway heaven and hell
Twinges come and go as every part of my body takes its turn to pretend to give up. One problem that sticks is a burning in my left little toe. This kind of friction happens often in races and generally isn’t a huge problem, so as it’s not really that painful I decide to just crack on. I’ll find out later that this is a big mistake.
My next big target is the 51-mile drop bag stop at Henley where I plan to rest for half an hour and refuel properly. This part of the race as I make my way there is easily the best. The afternoon sun starts to cool off as we head into a glorious golden evening with the Thames shimmering along side us, looking about as perfect as it could. I’d happily run for another 24 hours in these conditions, I think to myself, but I know that beyond Henley the darkness awaits.
Around 8pm I stride into Henley, happier than ever to see my blue crew with a new recruit. My friend and business partner Adam has driven down to say hello.
It’s blessed relief to be able to lie down for a bit and get a 33Shake and some protein down me but as dusk turns to darkness, the temperature drops rapidly and even after changing into my night gear I realise that if I spend too long here I’m going to get too cold to go again.
So after 25 minutes I get back on my feet and prepare to head out when Adam asks me if I want some company for the first few miles of the night stage. There’s a train station 6 miles, he assures me, and so he can run a bit and jump a train back no bother. Despite the fact he’s wearing jeans and a hoodie and carrying his jacket, I accept. Leaving Henley to head into the long, dark night was always going to be a lonely moment so I’m chuffed to have him along.
Other runners are totally baffled by this bloke running in jeans, a hoodie and carrying a jacket, looking like he’s just come out of the pub.
After running for 10 hours on my own it’s fantastic to have someone to chat to. Nightfall has made navigating much more challenging and Adam’s also brilliant at ensuring we don’t take any wrong turns. After about 40 mins we hit the train station and I steel myself for Adam’s departure but he decides he might as well go to the next train station. While I’m massively pleased, other runners are totally baffled by this bloke running in jeans, a hoodie and carrying a jacket, looking like he’s just come out of the pub. Another hour goes by and we hit another station. At this point Adam gets on the phone to his wife at home to ask if he can go a bit further. I’m relieved and amazed when she says yes and he does exactly that.
It’s now gone midnight and Adam has clocked more than a half marathon, the furthest he’s ever run. And he’s done it jeans, in the dark. By the time he eventually leaves me, it’s 1.30am, he’s run huge personal best distance of 17 miles and for well over five hours. He’s also carried me all the way through to my next pacer, Luke, who will run me through to sunrise. It’s an immense effort that I add to my list of reasons I now absolutely have to finish this race, along with the race photographer’s comment and Dave’s head torch heroics.
I leave with Luke and as the distance ticks past 67 miles and for the first time in the race my legs have started to scream a little at me. Not injury pain, just will-you-please-fucking-stop-running pain. I can sense that my head is going a little bit too. I’m in relatively good spirits but I find it hard to match Luke’s lively chat. And then something happens that’ll change the final 30 miles of the race.
Things that go bump in the night
Around mile 70, deep into the darkness of the night, as Luke and I make our way through a creepy section of woods accompanied by some wild hoots from animals we can hear but not see, my achilles decides to have grumble. It’s a split second tweak that makes me exhale loudly and pull up abruptly. It doesn’t hurt and it hasn’t gone but it’s a worrying development. For the first time in the race I’ve got a genuine physical problem to deal with. I drop to a walk for a bit, stretch a little and hope that it’s a passing complaint. What I don’t realise at the time is that this turns on a drip drip tap of doubt that means I won’t really ever get running properly again, and from this point on I move in fear of blowing my achilles.
Run-walking in ultras is common but it does have its dangers. Some strolling is inevitable but walk for too long without running and it becomes increasingly hard to get moving again and the very idea of running becomes more and more inconceivable.
The next five miles takes closer to an hour and twenty minutes. I’m slowing badly and by the time we hit the 80 mile mark, I realise the 24 hour target is rapidly disappearing as the race stretches out in front of me and the finish line is starts to feel a very long way away. I run some numbers and realise that at the rate we’re moving the last 20 miles are going to take another 5.5 hours at least. It’s a brutal mental blow.
Morning has broken (me)
At 5.30am with 85 miles in my legs I arrive at yet another aid station, just as my family get there. My sister comes into the village hall where we take refuge for 5 mins. She asks me what I need, rolling through a list of options. “Watermelon,” I mumble and she’s already got it in hand. This is the sign of a great crew member. She knows the answer before I do.
Then she asks me how I’m feeling and my brain can’t take it. The energy it takes to listen, comprehend and come up with a reply is all too much. “I need quiet,” I bark at her. “I just need to be left alone.”
“Shall I go outside?” she asks and at that point my brain realises what I’ve just done. After being with me all day yesterday, my sister got up at 5am on very little sleep, drove miles to be here again this morning to help me and I’ve just essentially told her to fuck off. It’s all too much for me, tears well up and my bottom lip starts to wobble. “I’m hurting sis. It’s fucking hard out there,” I get out trying to not to let the blubgates open. What my sister does next once again shows why she’s a vital part of my crew. She stays right where she is and gives me a hug. “You’re doing this Kieran. You’ve got this,” she says with a certainty that right now I wish I shared.
As I step out of the village hall back into the early morning chill, I give my mum a big hug and that nearly sets me off again. “Next aid station is 6 miles,” says a marshall. “Then it’s 5 and 4.” 6, 5, 4 I tell myself. It lodges in my brain and for the next 5 hours this is my new mantra. 654. 654. 654. 554. 554. 454. 454. As I move I mutter it to myself like a madman, on repeat. I’m sure Luke thinks I’ve lost the plot. I’ve not really said a word to him since mile 80 and now I’m chanting numbers with through gritted teeth. The happy, smiley me that Adam has gone and in his place is a raw, skinned, exposed bundle of nerve endings.
The six miles to the next aid station are as torturous as I’d feared. My hip flexors have gone ‘Tin Man’ on me and every time I break into a run my heart rate rockets and I feel sick from the exertion. It’s rock and hard place stuff. I want to move faster but I can’t. My progress slows to a painful pace and I realise that the 24-hour target is well and truly gone. Now it’s all about getting to the finish line as quickly as possible while minimising the growing discomfort.
After being with me all day yesterday, my sister got up at 5am on very little sleep, drove miles to be here again this morning to help me and I’ve just essentially told her to fuck off. It’s all too much for me, tears well up and my bottom lip starts to wobble
Finally I hit the aid station with nine miles to go (5,4) and my wife reads me a message from Dave, my dentist. “I know you’re hurting buddy but now is the time to make epic shit happen.” It’s a fitting note that makes me laugh because for the past 5 miles I’ve been trying to avoid epic shit happening in my shorts. It turns out that eating dates for 24 hours will do that.
After a brief stop, yet more water melon and a hug from my son, Luke and I trudge on. At this point I realise that Luke is about to enter ultra territory entirely by accident. Having come out to keep me company for an hour or so, he’s now been running for four or five. And he’s about to cross the 26.2 mile threshold and become an ultra runner. This should be a moment to celebrate but I’m in too much pain to even raise a smile. By the time we finsih Luke will have run 30 miles, the second PB set on course from my amazing pacers.
The five miles to the final aid station are a bit of a blur. All I know is that I’m a bit sick of the Thames. Luke does his best to keep my spirits up but it’s a fine line between motivation and irritation. It’s not his fault, he’s not doing anything wrong, I’m just a broken man who needs something to hate and right now his smiley face is in the firing line.
When we arrive at the aid station with just four miles to go it still feels like I’ve got a marathon to run. A Park Run distance has never felt lest doable than in this moment. Each mile is taking me 15 minutes so I know I’ve still got an excruciating hour to go. I’ve been moving for about 26 hours and the finish line feels a long way away, particularly in the morning sun that’s got me unable to work out if I’m too hot or too cold. The truth is I’m both.
“Come on, it’s time to go. Get off the seat and get this shit done,” barks the aid station marshall, admitting that he’s seen far too many people fail to leave the chair I’m now sitting in. He’s right. I need to move. But that’s easier said than done. Luke hauls me out of the chair and it’s like Grandpa Joe getting out of bed for the first time in decades in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Only without the jollity.
It’s just a Park Run…
The final four miles take everything. And I mean everything. I feel every single step likes it’s a mile in itself and even with just one mile to go I’m in this weird position where not sure if I’m going to make. I mean, deep down I know there’s no way that I’m not going to make it even if I have to crawl but at the same time every fibre of your being is questioning whether you can actually get the job done.
The final stretch of the Centurion Running Thames Path 100 is mercifully flat and paved. It takes you along the Thames in Oxford as you make your way to the Head of the River pub and it’s the cruellest 800 metres I’ve ever run. It feels like one long bend, around which you hope the Head of the River is going to appear but it never does. And then every 50 meters there’s a bench. And you want to sit on every single one of those benches. I can’t pass even one of them without want to stop for a rest. I’ve never wanted to stop moving as much as I do right now.
And then just as I’m about to succumb to a bench I spot my 8-year-old nephew and I know that means one thing. The end is near.
A bouncing Darcy ushers me left onto a cricket green that’s lush, soft and bouncy under my feet, out of which is growing a huge blue inflatable. I can see the line, I’ve got Darcy running alongside me and I can hear the cheers of my crew.
A smile takes over my face and from nowhere I get a spring in my step. Not enough to make me want to run but all of a sudden I feel ten feet tall. I grab a hug and a kiss from my mum, my sister and my wife, collect my little boy and take the final steps to the finish line. Before I can get there Riley decides he’d rather go back for the blueberries he was eating before I scooped him up but I can’t stop to grab him. The feet keep marching forward towards my first belt buckle. I take the last of 18 days’ worth of steps (at the recommended amount of 10000 in one day) and nearly three weeks activity in just over 24 hours. Not since crossing the finish line of the Marathon des Sables have I been so happy to stop moving. I’ve done it. I’ve run 100 miles.
An hour later as I sit in the car on the way home, too pumped to sleep, too tired not to, I try to process what just happened, I fire up my phone and find a flood of messages from friends, family and fellow runners. One stands out, it simply says: “Brilliant work mate. This is your new normal.” It’s the last thing I read before I fall asleep.