Officially, an ultramarathon is any event longer than a marathon. Generally they are run as point to point races rather than as circular routes which are usually the case with shorter events. They are generally off-road, often following national trails, as this makes course marking and marshalling easier for the organisers. However, being off-road adds additional challenges for the “runner” as they face variable conditions underfoot, often with hills and require at least some basic navigational skills.
Given the distances involved, events can take 24 hours plus to complete, so entrants need to be prepared for running in the night and coping with variable weather conditions. This also means they need to carry water, food, additional clothing, etc. and getting your nutrition and hydration strategies correct is a key factor. In additional to these physical challenges these events require great mental strength to keep pushing on when the body starts to shut down. It is how people deal with all these different challenges that make ultramarathon events and the people who take part in them fascinating to me.
There are a growing number of ultra events in the UK. James Elson started Centurion Running in 2010 and now organises four 100 mile events each year – The Thames Path 100, The South Downs Way 100, the North Downs Way 100 (which Jason Blair competed in last year) and the Winter 100. Some runners aim to complete all four which is known as the Grand Slam.
Along the route are a number of aid stations, approximately every 10 miles. At each aid station runners have to check in so that the organisers know where they are on the course and it gives them an opportunity to refill their water, have something to eat and in the later stages, drop out of the race if they cannot go on.
The TP100 starts in Richmond and finishes in Oxford. However, because the water level on the Thames was so high this year it was necessary to reroute the course just a couple of days before the race. The race still started in Richmond but at Cookham (mile 38), it looped back as far as Walton (mile 65), looped back to Cookham (mile 92) before looping back to finish in Windsor. This meant the length of the course was extended to 102 miles (although some put it at nearer 104).
Although, it was a great feat of organisation by James and his team to put the race on at all, changing the course from a point-to-point to an out-and-back race did add a greater mental challenge for the runners as they would have to pass through the finish line three times before they finally finished. The weather conditions were not exactly favourable either with temperatures barely above zero, snow forecast and icy winds.
My weekend started sloshing round a very wet Upton Court parkrun near Slough with Dave Wilson and Ricky Emery. I had chosen this parkrun as it was close to the Wraysbury aid station where I had volunteered to help out. I was extremely lucky as Wraysbury was the only aid station on the altered course that was situated inside. Although, it was still cold, I really feel for those people who spent many hours during the day or night with only a marquee for shelter.
For me the great part about volunteering is getting to talk to the runners and the other volunteers. Generally, the volunteers comprise ultrarunners or family or friends of runners in the event. Amongst the people at my aid station were a guy who had completed the Grand Slam in 2012 who was crewing for a friend this time, the wife of one of the lead runners in the race, a guy who was having the weekend off as he was taking part in a 145 mile race the following weekend and two girls whose partners were competing.
Wraysbury is at mile 22 and the first runners arrived in just under 3 hours. The faster runners tend to stop just long enough to refill their water bottles before heading off. Other runners will stop for longer, maybe adjust their clothing and grab something to eat. The food on offer can best be described as party tea. There are crisps, peanuts, sandwiches, sausage rolls, mini scotch eggs as well as fruit and sweet stuff such as biscuits, jelly babies and cake. I was surprised how popular things like water melon were on such a cold day but apparently it is a really good source of electrolytes. Also really popular amongst runners is coke – presumably for the sugar and caffeine boost. Later on the aid stations offer hot food such as bacon rolls and soup.
At 22 miles all the runners were looking relatively fresh, in good spirits and very grateful to the volunteers. Ann came through in about 4.25 hours cheerful as ever. On the amended course, runners would pass through Wraysbury three times and by about 4.30pm the last runner had arrived and a new team of volunteers had turned up to man the next shift. It was time for me to head home for something to eat and to grab some sleep before the night’s activities.
A lot of the runners are supported by a crew, i.e. someone to turn up at aid stations to provide fresh clothing, food and moral support. From the halfway point, runners are allowed to be accompanied by a “pacer” who can accompany them to the finish line and Ricky Emery and I had agreed to pace Ann. The plan was for Ann’s partner Steve to pick up Ricky and drive him to Windsor where he would begin pacing Ann at mile 48. Ricky would run with Ann to Walton before looping back and I would meet them with Steve on Staines Bridge at mile 74. I would then pace Ann from Staines to Cookham before looping back to the finish at Windsor.
It was very difficult to judge what time Ann would arrive in Staines. She and Ricky left Windsor at 9.45pm and Ricky was texting me regular updates as they left the various aid stations. I was aiming to be in position by 4.30am. I went to bed just after 8pm and set my alarm for 3am. It’s always difficult to get to sleep when you know you have to be up at a certain time but eventually I did. I am not sure what it was that woke me up but I was lying in the dark waiting for the alarm to go off and switched on the light to find out it was actually 3.30am – I had stupidly set the alarm for 3pm! Luckily, I still had plenty of time to get to Staines to meet up with Steve, well ahead of Ann and Ricky. We saw a number of runners trudge past before Ann and Ricky turned up around 5.45am for the switch over. Ricky’s trail shoes were still wet from the morning’s parkrun so he had had to run in his road shoes – not great planning given how muddy it was and he had fallen over a couple of times.
Ann and I set off. It was just getting light at this point. About two miles on from Staines we came to the Wraysbury aid station. The scene was rather different to how I had left it some 14 hours before. There just a couple of volunteers and about half a dozen runners slumped out on the chairs and in the changing rooms, some of them under emergency blankets. It was clear that their races were over. Two runners who we had overtaken arrived and I heard one say to the volunteer “I can’t go on”. We only stayed long enough for Ann to grab a quick coffee and we set out for Windsor. The path to Windsor was extremely muddy in places and the river had risen in making some areas impassable. Ann was not really able to run anymore at this point which is not surprising but we kept up a good pace of just over 3 miles an hour.
I rang Ricky as we were arriving in Windsor apparently just as he had got to sleep. I am sure Nikki and Maria will have little sympathy for him after Endure 24 last year. It was good to see Steve and Ricky at Windsor and we also met up with James Elson before setting off for Cookham. The path just after the Windsor aid station passes under a railway bridge and was completely flooded. The only way to get through without wet feet was to traverse a narrow ledge, then cling to a wire fence around the edge of the water. Ann had to go through this point four times and Ricky took some good pictures of us on the way back which you may have seen on Facebook.
As we left Windsor we started seeing runners (although generally they were mostly walking) heading in the opposite direction. They were about 20 miles ahead of us and were still going to finish within 24 hours which is an additional challenge. Ann could easily have got demoralised by this but her spirits never dampened. We pushed on to Cookham passing through Eton Dorney and Maidenhead. At Maidenhead, Steve and Ricky greeted us but we didn’t stop for long as I thought it was good to keep pushing on. Eventually we reached Cookham where we were greeted by Steve, Ricky and James again. The volunteers at Cookham were doing a great job and I had a lovely cup of tea and Ann had some soup. After a quick raid of the buffet table we set off on the final push to Windsor.
Knowing we were on the final stretch spurred us on and the miles seemed to go relatively quickly. Looking back it actually took us nearly four hours to complete those 10 miles or so to Windsor. We saw Steve and Ricky again as we passed through Maidenhead but we kept pushing on as we were conscious of the time and that we would be close to the 30 hour cut-off. Passing by Eton Dorney again we could hear the crowd as the women’s boat race was taking place. It was only in the last couple of miles that Ann’s pace began to drop as she developed a blister on the sole of her feet. Eventually, we reached Windsor and after the final traverse of the puddle we crossed the finish line around 3.30pm and for Ann a time of about 29.5 hours. Steve, Ricky, James and a small crowd were there to greet us.
164 people had started the race of which 90 completed it within 30 hours. Ann finished in 84th place and the winning time was 18 hours 11 minutes. The mud seemed to have been the main factor for the slower times this year and the cold temperature and the additional mental challenge of the course didn’t help. For most competitors just finishing is the main goal and time is largely irrelevant. It was a great achievement by Ann in very challenging conditions and I really enjoyed being part of her success.
I would strongly recommend the volunteering and crewing experience. There are not many people who would ever contemplate running more than a marathon, let alone 100 miles but it is great to get involved in these events. Ultrarunners are a different breed and it is great to be around such positive people. There will be future opportunities to volunteer or crew this year so let me know if you would like to get involved. You don’t need to be a fast runner to pace as generally the person you are pacing will be going quite slowly or walking in the latter stages of the event. Ricky and I did 55 miles between us but this could easily be divided into shorter sections.
Finally, below are some of Ricky’s thoughts from the event:
- Ann’s sheer tenacity that at every aid station she wanted to get through quickly and keep moving, the one exception being Walton around 68 miles when she decided to have a porridge snack!!
- Ann’s ability to pre-plan her requirements in respect of food and medical aids at each aid station, including her own coffee!!
- At around 70 miles Ann needed some caffeine so I had to administer 2 pro plus tablets to keep her awake, she nearly bit my finger off!!
- Ann was aware of her surroundings so much so that at around 70 miles she said to me “I love this time of the morning we should here the birds begin their morning chorus soon”, it was completely dark! I assumed the worst thinking lack of sleep had got to Ann, only to find to my astonishment that the birds began to sing 5-10 mins later, but it was still dark? Dr Dolittle eat your heart out! As above I had to offer her the pro-plus tablets!!
- Falling over in the Mud around 2-3 miles after setting off with Ann only to find she was trying to help me up after running over 50 miles – a machine!!
- You waking me up after I got comfortable and was about to have a sleep (3 times!!)
- The camaraderie and friendliness of all competing and the volunteers who must have been freezing standing there for most of the night.
- Finally seeing you doing your best spider man impression on the fence at the end, how I would have loved for that fence to fall, I have it on video and could have got £250 from You’ve Been Framed!!