Sunday, 3 May 2015

TP100 – Clowning Around

Having volunteered for the race last year, I'd got a free place for the Thames Path 2015 and so took a train over to Richmond for some pre-race beers with James, Chris, Nilkki and a few others in a very loud local pub. I always make a point of trying to hydrate well before the race and several rounds of local bitter did the trick.

Around 10pm I wandered off to the local deer park with my trusty hotel in the backpack. I’m so used to wild camping now that I’d already found a spot with Google Earth and after a little pre-race Facebooking, it was off to sleep for a wonderfully comfortable 7 hours in Hotel Gelert.

Either a great sunrise or Richmond is on fire
In the morning I packed up and wandered over to race registration, meeting up with the Centurion stalwarts that have become the core of a very well-run and professional organisation. As usual the safety-pins were in good order.

After very thorough kit check from Gary Kiernan and Allan Rumbles (probably giving me a hard time for being cheeky and asking if a 50p poncho was OK as a waterproof), it was on to pick up my number for the race. By 7:30 I was all done for registration so dropped in to McD for a double double breakfast muffin. I do like to eat as much as I can before a race as it sets me up with reserves for at least the first half. So 1400 calories and two coffees and my pre-race prep was going swimmingly.

Next it was off to Richmond Park for the local parkrun. A “tradition” that James Adams started in 2013 - he finished the PR in 23 mins and the 100 in 22:22 – so there was my target. I met up with Suzie Chan and Shaun Marsden at the start and we chatted about their recent fame in getting engaged at the end of the MDS. I didn’t want to push the parkrun too hard remembering I still had a lot of miles left to run that day, so I stuck to my plan of 25 minutes and chatted to some of the Centurion volunteers on the way round.

Once done we ran back to the start and I dived into the HQ to put on the clown suit & race vest. I’d eventually bitten the bullet and bought a proper vest from Centurion as the old race belt was not going to cut it for UTMB, so now was the perfect time to try it out (It was excellent. Why didn't I buy one sooner?)

Suited and clown booted in the trusty Hokas, I dropped in to the pre-start briefing. Luckily this year there were no major diversions and the weather forecast had improved from absolutely awful to potentially a bit damp overnight. Just in case I’d packed dry baselayers, sealskinz, drymax socks and grippy shoes in my dropbags for mile 51 and 71, neither of which I even opened as the kit I was using proved good enough.
"Seriously, don't run through Reading in that.."

After posing for a few pix, someone honked something and we started running. Then stopped a few hundred yards down the road as us newbies queued for a kissing gate. All the experienced runners had swung left and were streaming past on the main path. I may have run the TP several times, but I can’t remember every bit of it. Anyway, I had 24 hours of running ahead of me, so a minute or two wasn’t going to make a difference.

The first thing that became obvious is that running in a clown suit has an immediate effect on any kids I passed. Adults just shrug, smile or make some comment about being off-course for the marathon, but the kids just loved it. I must have given about 100 high-fives (low-fives for me) in the first 20 miles.

In the early stages I met up with Rashaad, a Bangladeshi runner who was aiming to be the first in his country to complete 100 miles, and hoping to finish under 24 hours. As I don't run with GPS it was only when he said we were on 8:45 min/miles I realised the usual TP suicide pace had kicked in. There was no way I could maintain that so I bid him good luck and dropped back, as my plan was to stick to 10s for the first half and see how it went from there. Little did I know I was to see him bouncing past me like Tigger at the finish to clock 23:00. And he’d composed me a song too - “Every race has it’s clown”.

Shortly after slowing the pace I met up with Paul Reader who I’d met on the Brecon Social Ultra earlier in the year and was running to the same 20-hour pace I had planned. At several points he had to curb my enthusiasm as my head was still telling me 9 min/miles were a good pace. He even had to pull me back once as I kept picking the pace up -  he described it as “training a puppy not to pull on the lead too much

The first 30 passed fairly uneventfully, though shortly after I started to have stomach issues and walked for quite a while. Once I got back to running I met up with Mark Fox, a stalwart of the Piece of String who ran 80% of last year’s race on a bust ankle (we’re all as sane as each other). We always get on well running together and dragged each other through the cold & rain of the night, warming up a little when we got to each checkpoint.

Now Centurion checkpoints have become something of a legend in UK ultra running. Stocked to the rafters with everything you may ever need, food for an army and enough fresh fruit to feed a zoo, the volunteers all help with a smile and a sense of humour. I especially remember the “inspirational” posters at Reading and the pot of Vaseline with a warning note at Clifton Hampden. So who else is a VasBudy?
Inspiration at Reading
I’ve volunteered on several Centurion events but apart from the PoS have never run one. It was great to see the race from the runner’s perspective, as everything worked as clockwork. Your bottles are filled for you, coffee made, and if you sit down you’re asked if you need anything on average every  45 seconds. Then after 5 minutes you’re told that you’ve sat down for too long, told how far it is to the next checkpoint, pointed in the right direction and booted out of the door. Perfect.

Since Henley at mile 51 I’d been checking the time at each checkpoint as I was working out the schedule for a sub-24. We were slowing down considerably through the night and both realised that anything faster than this wasn’t going to happen. I was constantly recalculating the average speed we’d need for both a 24 and 28 hour finish just in case, and as we ran with other groups I shared this with them. For several it was their first 100, so to tell them that they could make the 28h cutoff if they averaged a 3mph walk seemed to boost their spirits, especially now tiredness, blisters and the dreaded chafing were setting in.

Once we’d jogged, slogged and trudged our way to around the 90 mile mark, the sun rose. Well, not so much rose as stuck it’s head out from under the duvet of cloud, took one look at the rain and put the alarm on snooze. The temperature had risen, but we still needed to jog occasionally to warm up, as extended periods of walking left us shivering despite several base layers and waterproofs.

The last few miles were quite muddy, as it had been raining now for 10+ hours. Luckily the ground had been bone dry which had absorbed the majority of the rain, and so I was able to run the full race in the Hokas. They’re fantastic for my feet but awful in mud.

Since I’m talking about clothing I have to say that the clown suit made excellent practical sense. It served as a base layer (nylon fabric), leggings which kept the rain away really well, and gaiters which kept the sodden grass off my shoes. The wig was a bit hot for the daytime, but once I pop round to the barbers that’ll soon be sorted. I did suggest that James makes it compulsory kit, but I’m still waiting for him to get back to me on that.

I did have to perform one last bit of foolery and run in backwards at the finish. !sdrawkcab sgniht gniod ekil od I ,lleW

In all a fantastic experience, another A+ performance by the Centurion team, my first sub-24 trail 100 miler and a good stepping-stone to Thames Ring 250 in 8 weeks time when I'll be clowning around in support of CHSW..

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