Helen Wyatt is a runner and ultra runner who has just fulfilled a dream of competing in her first 100 mile race. With not running further than 100km before this, Helen talks about her experience during those 27 1/2 hours; and what to do when she does it again!
A 2016 pre-Christmas meet up with some of my lovely running friends. Just as we were leaving I said to my friend Neil Wilkinson: “I’m entering A100 for next year” … and by the time I had got home that evening he had entered too.
So that was it. We were all set for the A-race of the year in January. We had nine months to get stronger, fitter and become more experienced ultra-runners for the epic distance of 100 miles.
People who know us know that neither of us leave much to chance. We both worked through the kit list and practiced packing our running bags, running with them, running in the dark, running through the night.
Brian (our leg four pacer) had run Centurion Events before, and knew parts of all four legs well. He became our sounding board. I think in one message he asked me about my “drop box”.
My immediate reaction was panic. “Drop box, drop box, I don’t have one of those I have a drop bag. Should I have a drop box!!??”.
No, a drop bag was fine. In fact, it was the exact same thing.
I think my reaction to this message two days before the run should have been a sure sign that I was quite anxious about this event. My usual approach to events is relaxed with a “what will be will be” attitude. I’m sure that previously this tactic has got me some good race results.
Fast forward to Bills restaurant where we were sat eating the last supper. Both of us quite relaxed. We hadn’t really talked about what would happen if one of us got injured or one of us was holding the other back.
We, without hesitation both agreed. The stronger runner would go ahead with the pacer. The one left behind would decide if they were going to continue, based on the fact they would be solo. Pilla (Neil’s wife) and Loz (my sister) both looked at each other worried. Hmmmm… maybe we should have got two pacers per leg after all!
Back at the hotel I tried to get an early night. But I was pumped. (again, this NEVER happens to me). I had a terrible night’s sleep. I woke up at 5am, after probably only three hours of broken sleep. Lying there unable to go back to sleep I decided there was nothing I could do now, I had no time for any decent sleep so quit worrying.
So, feeling tired and with the start of a headache, as I sat in the bathroom the thought crossed my mind that I didn’t have to run. Who would care if I didn’t? Apart from Neil. How would I really feel if I watched him run off and had decided to stay behind. Probably not bothered. For the first five minutes. Then the guilt would set in. No, there was nothing else for it – I was going.
I carefully repacked my running bag again, checked my kit bag to drop and packed my overnight bag ready for Lozza to pick up. I walked over to registration and it felt like a death march. What. Was. Wrong. With. Me.
I saw Lozza and she asked if I was OK and I could barely answer. Everyone else was laughing and looked relaxed. They also looked as if they knew what they were doing. This just felt wrong.
I gave myself a talking to. “You deserve to be here. You’ve done the qualifying race. You have prepared and trained hard. You picked THIS race for a reason. You can keep going back to HQ. Everything you need is in this (very heavy) bag.”
First, we went to kit check and they were checking for three things out of the mandatory kit that you must have with you at all times (or incur a one-hour penalty). A waterproof jacket, two head torches and a pair of gloves. I had all those. I had spent hours packing them into dry bags and expelling all the air, so they didn’t get into my running bag like balloons. Hours. And now they were all coming back out. Well what did I really expect.
The 90 minutes I had at registration turned into me getting hot and bothered, getting stood on by other runners while trying to repack my bag. I ripped my number (how!? They are bloody bullet proof!), I bent all the safety pins trying to pin the number on my bag. WHY COULD EVERYONE ELSE DO THIS!!??
I went to the toilet and there were people in the back room lying down. Lying down!? I wanted to lie down! That looked like amazing race prep! Instead, I was hot, I had a headache, I needed to pee, my running bag felt too heavy, and also, how the hell was I going to run 100 miles.
Race briefing over, we all came out the village hall, I waited for Neil and we walked to the start. Having seen his face inside when we were getting ready it was obvious he was feeling pretty much the same as me. But we agreed, once we got started we would be OK.
There’s not much to say about this leg, apart from that we both came in feeling totally broken and with already painful legs. It’s a flat route out and back along the Thames Path. We found it hard to get into a rhythm and to get our legs ticking. It was congested on narrow pathways, so our run/walk strategy went out the window for the first 9-10 miles as we were constantly stop/starting. There were probably 50 gates along that stretch! So, even more stop/starting. It was muddy and slippery, and our trail shoes weren’t coping, we were sliding all over the place. And we now both had a headache.
We came off this leg and spent too long in the checkpoint, but we had to. We would not have carried on otherwise. I’m not sure which one was going to say it, but boy if we were struggling now, what was the rest of it going to feel like!?
We came out of Goring HQ like new people. We’d changed out of sweaty kit, eaten, had a cup of tea and shed the Achilles heel that was leg 1. Now the field had really spread out and we were able to run 4 mins and walk 1. The mid check-point was quite close; only 4 miles out so we got there, filled up and dug in for the next 8.5 miles to the turn around.
The next part of the course was nice. Through woods and trees along the Ridgeway. Storm Brian was in full force by now, but we were fairly sheltered for most of this leg although you could feel the strong winds picking up. We also had some hills. This was good, it made sure we walked more and gave our legs something else to do.
On the way back, it was dark so the head torches came out. We still had a good leg, we made up a few places and enjoyed the run back through the woods. I fell over, but hey – one of us was going to at some point, there was a lot of stumbling! (Oh, and we went the wrong way at some point). We worked out some timings and we were now well ahead of the cut-off. We then talked about the 24-hour thing, and it was at that point we decided neither of us were going strong enough to run this in less than 24 hours. So that was good. We were in it together for the long haul 😊
When we got back to HQ Liz our leg 3 pacer was there looking as fresh as a daisy. It was so good to see a fresh friendly face. We tried to speed up and bit on this changeover, quickly getting changed, a quick cup of tea and some very exciting (NOT!!) hot baked beans in a cup. I had visions of pasta, jacket potatoes and cake so I felt a bit cheated here! Anyway, nothing else for it …. Crack on …
Leg 3 started off well. We were in full swing chatting with Liz about what had occurred so far. It’s a great deal up hill so we walked quite a lot the first 3-4 miles. Liz was good at timing our 5 on 1 off run/walk strategy and made sure we didn’t run too much up hill.
About halfway up this leg the path becomes more exposed and we turned to the right. Man. Right into the delightful headwind that was storm Brian.
It was here the outside of my right knee really started to hurt. Like agonising. I tried to ignore it as much as possible, but I was trailing behind and unable to keep up. With this hurting I was also struggling along the rutted sections of the path. I couldn’t find a good place to run that was comfortable for my knee. The rutted pathways meant I had to keep my feet really close together and this was making it worse.
I kept telling them to carry on ahead and to wait for me at the aid station. It was too cold to be hanging about now and I was worried Neil was going to get cold. He was going well; and after all we had agreed that the stronger would carry on.
We got to the aid station and by now the wind was strong. All the gazebos had been replaced by Luton vans because of the wind and even the van box was moving a lot in the wind. We all came out of the cold, donned extra gear, and carried on.
It was at this point I decided I was going to drop out. I didn’t really want to deep down, but I was cold, I was hurting, I was miserable in the wind and I was getting upset. My head had gone. I always knew I’d find this penultimate leg the hardest, but I was struggling. I asked Neil and Liz to go on ahead again, but they wouldn’t. So, I decided, I was going to tell them I was dropping out at the turn around point. Once they had gone I was going to wait and see how I felt. If I carried on I wouldn’t ruin Neil’s race.
After another half an hour or so we got to the turn around. It was such a welcome sight it was ridiculous. When you’re stripped down to the bone the simple things in life are almost heavenly. In all the other legs we’d been in and out quickly, but I was stopping for a cup of tea.
That tea was seriously the best thing ever. Like ever in my life. I must have been so tired by now that I instantly forgot my plan. So off we went again this time with the wind pushing us down the hill. I was still struggling with my knee but found I could keep up with Neil’s run/walk if I really marched on. While I was finding the terrain still challenging this would be my strategy until we got back onto the road.
Back onto the road and closer to HQ. I was still lagging, and it seemed like we had more ups than downs on the way back which I couldn’t comprehend. We had about 4 miles to go and my mind was wandering to leg 4. Now in an enormous amount of pain, desperately tired, knowing I was the weaker link, the thought of 4 miles felt gruesome. And there was still the last full leg to do after that.
How? How? This wasn’t going to happen. Having kept quiet about how bad I was feeling up until this point I blurted out to Neil that I was feeling bad. I think at first, he thought I needed a poo. No, it was not quite as bad as that (ha ha!). But it was so bad that I started sobbing. Almost uncontrollably. Poor Neil and Liz. They tried to reassure me, but I couldn’t stop. By now I was crying because I couldn’t stop crying.
Then Neil said something that changed my run for the better. He told me that there was not a chance he was doing this again, so I was finishing this leg – and then I was going out on leg 4. Because I wasn’t going to stop at 75 miles and make him do it all again next year because I had DNF’d. I think this is what he said. Whether he did or not, this was what I heard, and this turned it around. Of course I had to finish it.
So, we dug in for the last 3 miles. It was a LOOOONNNGGGG 3 miles. So so far. But then we were back. And we had a new pacer.
Liz probably had to go and lie down in a dark room after her experience with us!
If I am honest, I could not think of anything worse than going back out there for 7 hours. No bloody way. But I pushed that from my mind. This was the last leg.
We asked Brian (our friend and leg 4 pacer, not the storm) to do some maths. We were still well ahead of cut-off, but we had lost some time on leg 3. I knew this was going to be slow and I was worried about the cut-off.
Brian worked out we had bags of time, even if it was a slow walk at 20-minute miles. That made me feel better. We could do this.
Leg 4 takes you back down the river and then towards Reading. We left again in the dark but knowing the sun would be coming up soon.
The first section takes you through some undulating woods and again I started lagging. But I felt OK. I felt that with no pressure I could just pace on. I explained to Brian our plan and he was all ears, so he went ahead to catch Neil. I thought that would be the last I’d see of both until the end, and then half wished I had brought my iPod.
But soon Brian was back. They’d had a chat, and Neil had said contrary to what we had agreed he preferred to march on himself and for Brian to stay with me. I wasn’t going to argue. I felt that my sobbing incident had probably got to Neil a bit and before the same happened to him, he preferred to keep his head to himself. Understandable, but I felt bad about this.
So off we went, run-walking (or by now shuffling). My shuffle was the same pace as Brian’s fast walk, so we must have looked ridiculous to anyone watching but hey, we were getting it done.
As we left the aid station and got onto the fields I started having to battle the overwhelming desire to sleep. Oh dear. No wonder they use this in torture. Because that’s what it is, pure complete torture. I desperately desperately wanted and needed sleep. But at the same time, I was fighting closing my eyes. I remembered the double espresso caffeine SIS gel. I would never have had this if I wasn’t desperate, but I was desperate! It was disgusting beyond belief, but it did the trick and soon I was off again, chatting to other runners while Brian did continuous run maths.
It wasn’t long now, and I knew that Lozza was waiting for me outside her hotel in Reading. I was still shuffling at this stage, no faster than Brian’s fast walk but I was moving forwards and felt OK. In fact, I felt good.
Hugs with Lozza and Pilla and only now 2 miles or so from the turn around point. Brian told me we had to be quick, so there was enough time for a drink refill and a toilet stop, and then we were off We found Neil sitting down and rubbing his feet, he felt OK but was so so desperately tired. I wanted to sit next to him and hug him, but I knew sitting down would be a big mistake for me.
The nice man at the checkpoint made me a cheese sandwich and with a cup of tea we were off making our way home.
The final stretch
2 miles back down the road and we saw the whole gang this time. I broke down sobbing (again!) – only 10 miles from the end now but it suddenly felt impossible. There was no other thing for it – the walking poles came out, and with it, a new H. We were really motoring now (we weren’t but it felt good). Brian gave me a bit of a Snickers bar as we made the steps to the railway line (seriously who thought that was a good idea!) and I hoovered the whole lot, much to his amusement.
The last 6 miles and we caught up with Neil. Both of us were pretty destroyed by now asking only one question. How long” “will we make it” “how much further” … Poor Brian!
Once we cut to the road I was fine. New terrain and an aid station just ahead. If it wasn’t in the rules that we had to go to every aid station, I would have skipped this one. It’s only 4 miles from the end and I wanted to keep going now I had new-found momentum. But a quick stop and off we went again. We left a few in the aid station and we still had time to get the last 4 miles done.
Even though this felt like a long stint we were getting closer with every step. We were on our way home. A hundred metres from the end and I spied Loz waiting for us sat on the bench with a lovely, surprise; my lovely friend Lina. More tears from me, and the best words from Lozza: “come on, let’s get you home”.
And there we were. It was done. 100 miles in 27 ½ hours. So hard. So emotional. Over that 100 miles I had found real, true, lifelong friends. I have so much respect for anyone who goes back and does that distance repeatedly. At the time I said “absolutely, no, no, no way would I do it again”. But something in me wants to go back and run it smarter. Experience counts for everything and one thing I had learned is that you can’t run 100 miles with just your legs.
For anyone considering their first 100 here are my top tips:
- Eat and drink – and keep eating and drinking. I nailed this. I passed the wee test and I didn’t feel sick from lack of food or salts. I have suffered before in endurance events and it’s miserable.
- Make sure you have a pacer, even if you are running with someone. If anything, you have a reasoned voice timing run/walking and telling you to walk up hills.
- Check out the terrain and if it’s tricky towards the end, pack some walking poles. I was walking quicker with these the last 10 miles than I could shuffle, and if anything, it gives you something else to think about!
- Have an emergency caffeine gel with you for when you get really, tired.
- Spend a few minutes at each checkpoint and aid station. A cup of tea and a bite to eat really does make a difference to how you feel when you arrive and how you feel when you leave.
- Make sure your hat, gloves, buff and arm warmers are somewhere within reach in your running back as the cold sets in. As silly as it may sound, stopping to take your bag off can be the worst thing in the world. If they are easy to reach you’re more likely to put them on and then take off when too hot.
- Buy a jacket that is at least one size too big. It means you can take it out your bag and put it on over your run bag without having to take your bag off.
- A genius idea from Neil. Pre-pack your clothes changes in separate bags. Easy to pick up, change and put smelly things back in that bag.
- Relax, relax, relax. I didn’t, and it became an ongoing battle. Remember that everyone else is doing the same course and having the same battles. Just keep going, going, going.