I missed out on the sub-24 hour buckle by 10 minutes. I got lost four times, loitered at Aid Stations for longer than necessary, stopped to speak to a couple of friends along the route and forgot to put a replacement head-torch in my drop bag to get me through until dawn. I should be kicking myself, but instead I’m grinning like the Cheshire Cat, because I had an absolute blast.
I went into the race with three goals: to finish; to have fun; and to come out relatively unscathed. Finishing means that my main goal for the year, to complete the Centurion Grand Slam, is on; having fun means that I’m looking forward to the next race rather than dreading it; and relatively unscathed means that I should be physically capable of toeing the line in 6 weeks’ time.
The fun started before the race had begun. Registration was heaving with familiar faces, from parkrun, from Twitter, from volunteering at other Centurion events. I meandered around the room drinking in the atmosphere and unwittingly picked up a mantra which spurred me on throughout the second half of the race: “No-one ever died from sore feet. No-one ever died from sore feet. No-one ever died from sore feet.”
The icing on the pre-race cake was being seen off by Vanessa, my parkrun touring friend, who opted against a new-to-her parkrun and a lead on the Most Events table in favour of repeating Old Deer Park (three laps of a playing field) so that she could pop across to the start to say good luck. And then, before I knew it, we were off.
The first 51 miles passed in a whirl of faces: Richard and Ann popped up at every aid station while Stuart, the race photographer appeared just before Aid 1, Aid 2, Aid 4 and Aid 5. There were hellos from Rich and Bryan as they ran by, an hour-long game of leapfrog with Justin, and sightseeing with Hannah and Marie. Cat, running goddess from Race to the Stones, was on the towpath at Teddington, Nigel, a face from my first ever marathon up in Fort William, was on the towpath at Kingston, parkrunners Rachel and Michael were cheering at Hampton Court and there was even a “looking good, Abradypus” from Tim, cheering from a bench in the middle of a field in Chertsey. Ultraboy, Ultrababy and the Ginger Ninja. Fi, Sharon, Natasha, Gary, Karen, James, Dave. I’m bound to have forgotten as many as I remember, but every one made me grin.
I reached Henley (mile 51) as darkness fell and put on my light that I might tread safely into the unknown. The bustle of the early miles was replaced with an equally glorious silence, and I relaxed into the calm of the night. 7 miles later, at Reading, I was nearly reduced to tears when the team (Susie, Shaun, Paul and Andy) surprised me with some of my chocolate sugar crack (thank you, thank you, thank you, Nici) and Fi, crewing for another runner, went above and beyond and helped me to apply a new layer of anti-chafe goo in a number of hard-to-reach places.
The rest of the race was about hanging on and keeping going. A spot of speed gained from trying to hang onto Sue on the way out of Reading, a boost from Kiernan at Streatley, a nudge from Richard on the never-ending approach to Clifton Hampden, a rallying cry from a runner at Abingdon (the final sub-24 finisher who romped past looking as fresh as a daisy) and then, eventually, a welcoming committee of James, Drew and Claire, who were gathered just before the final bridge to see me over the finish and into the waiting arms of my other half.
After that, it was all about the rest. I found a chair, sat down, and didn’t move again until Rachel and Michael (you remember them, the parkrunners from Hampton Court) bundled me into their car and ferried me back to my doorstep. Okay, okay. It should have been all about the rest, but I’d mainlined cola since Aid 2 and was fizzing, so I spurned the chair in favour of pottering, and owe Nici another debt of gratitude for finding me a couple of mindless tasks (collecting empty cups and ferrying chilli to runners) to keep my fidgets at bay.
I loved, loved, loved it. Hours of solitude, buckets of friendship, hugs, smiles and junk food galore. Yes, there are blisters, and yes there are aches, but mostly there was just lots and lots of fun.
And midges by the ton.