I timed out somewhere around mile 83. By then, my pace had slowed to two miles an hour, and I needed to be covering ground at three miles an hour to make Oxford by 2pm. If you’d been on hand to offer me a teleport button, you could have had my life savings and all of my future earnings, but as it was, I ground out another two miles before my race finally came to an end at Aid Station 11 (Clifton Hampden).
24 hours earlier
Almost exactly 24 hours earlier, I was toeing the line in Richmond, ready to take on my first 100 mile event. My shin, which had been niggling since South Downs Way 50, had finally shut up, and I had spent a very nice couple of hours chatting to people I knew from twitter, people I knew from parkrun, and people I knew from other ultras. I’d had a good luck hug from my coach, picked someone’s brains about track sessions, and I was good to go.
After a sub-10 finish at SDW50, I was after a sub-24 finish, and I set my happy / happier / happiest goals accordingly. The happiest was easy – sub 24 and bag the uber-bling. The happy was easy – finish the race and bag the standard-bling. The happier was more elusive, but in the end I plumped for 24:01. Time is continuous, not discrete, and if I was going to miss out on the uber-bling then I wanted the best finish that I was capable of.
Every time I thought of running 100 miles, my brain went into meltdown, so my plan was to avoid all thoughts of distance, and instead to leave 13 aid stations. In order to leave an aid station, all I needed to do was ask one question: “Can I make it to the next?”
Start to Aid 1 (Walton-on-Thames)
Pure, unadulterated joy. The sun was shining, my shin was quiet, my pacing was solid and at Hampton Court I netted personal “Go Louise!” cheers from two groups of parkrunners and a group of Windmilers.
Aid 1 to Aid 2 (Wraysbury)
Somewhere between Walton and Wraysbury, my knee started to go. It was fine during my walking breaks (with a flat ultra like Thames Path, I was walking to a schedule, not to the landscape) but increasingly niggly as I ran. By Wraysbury running was painful, but you can finish an ultra by walking, I had crew who could bring a knee brace to Aid 6, and I could definitely make it to Aid 3.
Aid 2 to Aid 3 (Dorney)
I walked the whole section, and by Dorney, my knee had pretty much stopped bending, so my gait had a little bit of the Richard Whitehead about it. I texted my crew. Was there any chance they could meet me at Aid 4 instead of Aid 6? They said yes, and I plodded on.
Aid 3 to Aid 4 (Cookham)
Step, scuff, step, scuff, step, scuff. Another walked section, with my right foot increasingly scuffing the ground, but I was still making good time (sub 15 minute miles) and I had found a gait that was uncomfortable but not actively painful, so I remained hopeful. Runners continued to pass me, but all were encouraging and made all the right noises about how fast I was walking. And with the carrot of a knee brace and painkillers at Aid 4, this section passed remarkably quickly.
Aid 4 (Cookham)
My first substantial stop. I met my wonderful crew (I may or may not have told them that I really, really loved them), took some painkillers, braced my knee, changed my shoes, ate some food from the mobile pantry, got my race number zapped, told my crew once more that I really, really loved them and set off.
Aid 4 to Aid 5 (Marlow)
I ran! The whole section (barring scheduled walking breaks). The knee brace did the trick, and I started to feel really positive again. Finishing the ultra by running 22 miles and walking 78, while entirely feasible, would also be extremely tedious, so the prospect of being able to run again lifted my spirits. Just before Marlow, my right eyeball became a midge graveyard, so I reached the aid station with tears streaming down my face begging a volunteer to remove the corpse from my eye. They did so remarkably efficiently, and I was off again.
Aid 5 to Aid 6 (Henley)
After the high of the start and the low of the walking section and the high of the brace-and-painkillers section, it was time for another low. Just as you get to Marlow Aid Station, there is a remarkably steep bridge, and coming down it, I started to notice my blisters for the first time. As I made my way to Henley, the undersides of my feet became more and more sore, and the darkness fell. Had my race gone to plan, I would have been at Henley well before dark, but as it was, I had to stop to dig out my gloves, hat and windproof jacket, and then stop again to dig out my head torch. By the time I finally made it to Henley, my dreams of a 24-hour finish had finally evaporated and I was a pitiful and woebegone wreck. Fortunately, seeing my crew, Karen and Fiona McNelis helped to put me back on an even keel and any thoughts I had of dropping evaporated.
Aid 6 (Henley)
My second substantial stop, as I had to layer up against the cold of the night. Short sleeves were replaced with long sleeves, and long tights were added on as an additional layer. Eventually. Putting the tights on meant removing my shoes. I took my shoes off, put on my tights, put my shoes back on and then was told very kindly by my crew that I had in fact only put my tights on one leg. Off came my right shoe again so that I could remedy the situation. I left just ahead of Fi (I knew I’d stiffened up while I’d stopped, so needed a head start to get up to brisk walking pace) and set my sights on Aid 7.
Aid 6 to Aid 7 (Reading)
Not my finest hour. I was still managing a fairly consistent walk, but my blisters were increasingly sore (I was regretting not trying to pop them at Henley) and running was out of the question. Fi caught me up, walked with me for a bit and then ran on ahead, and Tiago, whom I’d walked a section with earlier (though don’t ask me where, because the tow path has blurred into one long amorphous strip) overhauled me even though he was also walking. Long parts of this section are scrubby grass, and bits of them were also gooey. The uneven surface and sliding around did for my feet and shin, and when I found out that the aid station was up a flight of stairs, I could have cried. That said, I was still making reasonable progress, and didn’t feel in danger of dropping, so leaving Aid 7 was never really in doubt.
Aid 7 (Reading)
Another fairly substantial stop, as I had some soup (I may or may not have mentioned to my crew that my appetite had gone down with the sun), necked some potatoes with houmous and had a go at dealing with my blisters (not very successfully). I knew I had some in-house support at Aid 9 so I stood my crew down until Aid 11 with orders to get some sleep.
Aid 7 to Aid 8 (Whitchurch)
Oh, dear Gods, the steps. Somewhere between Reading and Whitchurch there are steps. Not three or four steps, but three or four flights of steps. Given that my knee brace meant I couldn’t bend my right knee enough to get my foot on the next step up, and that my left buttock made very strange creaking sounds when I asked it to lift me up, I adopted the rather strange technique of leaning into the left handrail and swinging my right leg up (without bending it), taking one step at a time. Several people bounded past me, and I’m ashamed to say that when one of them offered me painkillers, I swallowed them without a second thought.
Aid 8 (Whitchurch)
“No I’m not dropping!”
There are steps at Whitchurch which I just couldn’t negotiate, so I asked one of the volunteers if he could take my number. “You want to drop?”, he asked, reaching for my safety pins. “No!”, I said firmly (well, mumbled fairly incoherently), “I mean can you take down my number without me having to come inside?”. He did (thank goodness) and I plodded on.
Aid 8 to Aid 9 (Streatley)
I ran! By Aid 8, I was failing miserably to stick to my guns and ignore distance, and my head had started to calculate whether I was still on for a finish. Or rather, my head had started to try to calculate whether I was still on for a finish, but had lost all ability to do simple mental arithmetic. As I came out of Whitchurch, I timed a mile with my Garmin and realised that my walking pace wouldn’t be good enough. It was now or never. By walking, I was effectively dropping. To finish, I needed to run (though by this point, ‘running’ was only netting me about 13:50 minute miles). I reached Streatley about an hour ahead of the cut off, had a very brief chat to Alma (a complete star) and headed off into the night pursued by the looming fear of missing a cut-off.
Aid 9 to Aid 10 (Wallingford)
More of a walk / run section, but still running in patches, and just about managing to average the pace needed to stay an hour ahead of the cut off. The sun rose over the hills, the head torch went back into my bag and I remained hopeful, though my knee, shin, feet – let’s face it – legs, were starting to really hate me. I breezed (ahem) through the checkpoint, and headed off for Aid 11.
Aid 10 to Aid 11 (Clifton Hampden)
I’d left Wallingford an hour ahead of the cut off and in a position where I wouldn’t need to cover ground much faster than 3 miles an hour to make it to Oxford. I took advantage of the diversion round Wallingford to meet up with my crew, downed a couple of painkillers (being careful not to exceed the recommended dose, obviously), changed my shoes again (as they’d filled up with grit overnight) and headed off. Unfortunately, somewhere between Wallingford and Clifton Hampden, my wheels fell off. Seventeen hours of limited knee-bending had forced my hip flexor to work a lot more than it should have done to move my leg forward, and it decided that the time was right to join the pity party.
Blisters made brisk walking unbearable and my hip flexor made running impossible. My pace slowed, the tow path stretched out interminably, and I finally gave up. By 83 miles, I knew that I’d missed the cut-off, and unlike at Whitchurch where the thought of a DNF had spurred me into action, I had nothing left to give. I texted my crew to say I was going to drop or be dropped at Aid 11, and then hobbled the most suffer-filled two miles of my life.
I am prouder of this race than any other that I’ve run. SDW50 was immense fun and left me on a massive high, but this was in a different league. I am gutted that circumstances meant no t-shirt and no bling, but I realised somewhere between Aid 3 and Aid 4 that my happier goal of 24:01 was really the goal to do the best I could given the conditions that I encountered. I think I did that, and I am content, nay happy, with the outcome.