Little about how 2020 has panned out has been as expected – COVID-19 has seen to that. I’ve been one of the lucky ones in many ways: I’ve not (so far) caught the coronavirus, nor has anyone in my immediate family. I’ve been able to keep running through furlough and while starting a new job. I’ve had some goal races, such as Comrades, cancelled and others postponed, but I had managed to run one ultra the weekend before lockdown started, and completed eight 50Ks as combined training runs and virtual events during lockdown.
Travelling to event locations for recce runs has, however, been curtailed, first by ‘don’t travel’ instructions from the government, then by a continued wariness about taking trains, combined with not wanting to impose too often on my long-suffering husband to drive me to a trail head then pick me up again some hours later, 25 or 30 miles or so further down the path. For the NDW100 I had managed to recce the whole route, most of it more than once, and I already had a fair knowledge of the first 50 miles. I didn’t regret it, but I was aware that in concentrating on that, then recovering from it, I’d failed to recce the routes for CW50 and Autumn 100.
With two weeks to go before CW50, and coaching instructions to spend a few hours on hilly trails, I considered heading for the South Downs Way, then realised it would be about the same time to drive to Goring or thereabouts. A query in the Centurion Facebook group soon netted me a suggested parking spot and a .gpx course of a loop that would cover about 15 miles on the middle section of the CW50 course (plus a bit not on the CW50 route, to make up the loop). I managed to follow the route okay and returned to the car pleased that some of the route, at least, would be familiar, and that I wouldn’t be taken by surprise when I met the hill up to the windmill. No more recces would be possible, as I was helping mark a 24-mile section of the Thames Path 100 the next weekend.
I had booked a room in the Travelodge at the services between junctions 11 and 12 on the M4, so it would only be a half-hour drive on race morning. Then I discovered that the M4 would be closed between those two junctions from 8pm to 6am on the Friday night! A bit of panicking and cursing, with a rethink of what time we should leave home and a call to the Travelodge to find out if and how we could get there if the closure started before we arrived. Friday evening, eating as we drove, we reached Junction 11 with a few minutes to spare and no roadworkers in sight – curious, given that the closure was about to start. Safely at the Travelodge and we found the road was now scheduled to close at 9pm, not 8pm as I had been told, so we needn’t have worried, and the road would still reopen at 6am, so we would be able to leave as planned in the morning – I wanted to be away by no later than 6.30.
Having got to Farnham for the NDW100 a little later than planned, this time I made sure I remembered to watch the race briefing a couple of days earlier, rather than on race morning, so we were in the car and heading for Goring by 6.20, ahead of schedule. Navigation was easy and on reaching Goring, after an attempt at parking in the rail station car park, we found another car park that didn’t require scanning a QR code and downloading an app for payment. As a bonus there were toilets – always a good thing before starting a race.
It was only a short walk to the village hall and the start. As my husband would be meeting me after the race I didn’t need a drop bag. I donned my mask and went in to pick up my tracker and tape it to the backpack (sanitising hands before and after) so that interested family members could follow my progress. Several runners were queuing for the toilet and I was extra glad I had been able to use the facilities at the car park. Back outside, temperature check passed, and I was ready to start at about 7.20am. James beckoned me forwards – and I realised I hadn’t got my Garmin ready! Apologising, I stepped off to the side and started pressing buttons. Signal locked, course chosen and I was off, running across the little green then following the Centurion arrows down the road.
After a little while I noticed a Thames Path sign and one of the other runners commented that we were on the same route that would be used for one of the legs of the A100. So I supposed I was recceing that, except I didn’t know where we deviated from that route. In the recorded race briefing James had warned us that the course used parts of several well-marked paths (Thames Path, Chiltern Way and the Ridgeway) as well as many smaller footpaths and bridleways, so we needed to make sure we followed the Centurion arrows and tape at any junction.
With the staggered start, during the first few miles I passed several people and in turn was passed by several people. Less than two miles along I spotted a blue soft cup that must have fallen from another runner’s pocket, so I stuffed into the back of one of my side pockets and hoped it would stay there and that I would be able to reunite it with its owner at some point. Throughout the race, every time I passed someone that I thought I hadn’t seen before, I asked if they had lost their cup. None had, although one other runner had picked one up and a third had seen (but left) yet another. I was somewhat surprised at the number being dropped – I keep mine tethered to the backpack with a piece of lightweight string so I can’t lose it. (I did manage to find the owner via a Facebook post afterwards).
The weather was good, warmer than I had expected and reasonably sunny, but thankfully nowhere near as hot as it had been for NDW100 five weeks earlier. I had started with a short-sleeved top, shorts and arm warmers, but I took the arm warmers off very early on and stuffed them into a pocket. Within a couple of hours I was wishing I’d gone for a vest, but at least with my shoulders covered I didn’t need to worry about sunburn. The ground was hard and dry.
This wasn’t a big goal race for me, although I hoped to finish in under 10 hours, so I wasn’t pushing on. The first few miles I had to specifically hold myself back, particularly when other runners passed me. After that I ran ‘easy’ by feel, pushing only a little. The first several miles were pretty flat, but I knew from my recce that there would be more hills later on.
I hadn’t been looking at the distance on my watch, only what turns I needed to take, on the course view, so I was pleasantly surprised when I realised I was approaching the first aid station at 10 miles – it had seemed like less. I had only drunk about 500 mL of water by this time – it was definitely cooler than it had been for NDW100! In and out of the aid station very quickly after sanitizing hands, filling the empty water bottle, picking up a bag holding a couple of cherry tomatoes and sanitizing again on the way out, then on down the lane, calling a ‘thank you all!’ to the volunteers as I went.
With the COVID-limited aid station offerings, I was carrying most of what I expected to eat, and periodically dug into one of my snack bags for vegan sweets, raisins mixed with cranberries, pretzel sticks and so on. The tomatoes were a nice addition, although I regretted the absence of satsumas.
To the second aid station and through quite quickly again, this time pausing just long enough to unpeel a piece of banana and throw the skin in the rubbish bag. Thank the volunteers, sanitise hands and go. Onwards!
I was trotting along quite happily when a large insect suddenly zoomed towards me from the right side, collided with the back of my head, stung me and flew off. Ow! That hurt. Having had a similar fly-by sting (that one by my nose) on a run earlier in the summer, I expected the sting to hurt like crazy for 5 or 10 minutes (which it did) then to settle down – which it did NOT. I ran on, trying to ignore the pain in my scalp and to appreciate the scenery instead. The route was certainly scenic, with rolling hills, fields and woodlands.
My Garmin was doing a great job of indicating distance to the next turn, and degree of turn, and the Centurion arrows and tape route markings were good as always, although there were some long sections without turning where the distance between bits of tape were long enough that I started worrying I’d missed a turn.
By now the course was definitely more undulating. The path started to look familiar and I realised I was now on the section that I had recced. More hills, where I reminded myself to eat. Down a road then right through a deer gate into a large park-like area that I remembered from my recce was Stonor Park. Through, past the large (very large!) house, then through another gate and into a bit of woodland. I looked for deer as I ran through the deer park, but didn’t see any. The sting still hurt.
I was sure we were not that far from the windmill now. I was right; soon I was heading down into the little village, Turville, dodging groups of people standing around on the roads (at least there were no cars – some of the other road crossings were downright scary with vehicles moving very fast), then through the gate and up the hill. Past the windmill, over the road and off again through another stretch of woodland, then a long incline up by a drive to the third aid station, at Ibstone. There was a bit of a queue here, but there are worse times to be forced to pause than after a long uphill stretch. Sanitise hands, pull on my facemask and wait. One of the volunteers made use of the queue, asking a runner two or three people behind me to pull out his ‘required kit’ items – very sensible to do one of the random checks while someone had to stop anyway. Into the courtyard, fill water bottles, grab a bit of banana and out, thanking the volunteers. Onward to Christmas Common.
[Stornor (left); the view to the windmill (right)]
Soon after Ibstone, on a stony downhill path through woodland, I passed one then another runner and noticed that the second one had a water bladder splashing away inside her backpack. I slowed down and turned my head back: ‘in case you don’t know, if you fill the bladder then turn it upside down you can suck the air out – then it doesn’t slosh,’ I said. ‘I hadn’t thought of that,’ she said, ‘I’m used to it by now!’ A wave and I continued, concentrating on where I was placing my feet. A minute later I heard voices yelling after me. Stopping, I looked round and there were the two runners, calling and beckoning: I had missed a turning! I waved and called a thank you as I started power-hiking back up the hill.
Woodland, fields, more woodland. Looking at my watch I realised that the map view was no longer indicating the distance to the next turning, only the distance to the end of the course, which was a lot less useful. Walking an incline, I messed around with it, trying to find whatever setting I’d changed and change it back. All I succeeded in doing was unintentionally, and annoyingly, tell the watch that I’d finished an activity (Run) and started a new one (Run). Great – now it wasn’t even telling me how many miles I’d done. [I later discovered that, stupidly, the Garmin 935 battery lasts for nearly 20 hours, but it can only handle 50 waypoints – a crazy limitation!]
Into Swyncombe aid station and out again, pausing to let a group of walkers finish coming through the kissing gate in the opposite direction. The last of them was wheeling a baby buggy with a Yoda toy strapped into it – I have no idea why. By now pulling on my facemask and sanitizing hands was as much a part of the routine as filling the water bottles and thanking the volunteers.
Out of Swyncombe and passing St Botolph’s Church. Down the drive towards the house, left of the old church. During my recce I had spent several frustrating minutes failing to find the route and having to ask a local for help, so this time I watched closely for the markings on the left. There it was – a narrow path, easily missed. The pair of runners ahead of me had just run straight past so I yelled to them. ‘Left! Come back, left!’ They paused, looking surprised, then as I continued to call out and beckon and point, they turned round and suddenly saw the tape. “Thank you!”
“No problem – just paying forward the help other runners gave me earlier.” I described where I’d gone wrong and they said they had missed that turning as well. We ran together for a little bit and I found they were entered in both the 100-mile and the 50-mile Grand Slams, so had run the Thames Path 100 the previous week – all credit to them! We passed and re-passed each other several times on the rest of the course, before they overtook me a final time a few miles from the finish.
Over the rolling fields. A long, long slightly downhill section on a wide path, and I pushed on a bit, enjoying the running. I hadn’t seen any tape for ages (that happened on two or three long straight sections – much longer distances than usual for Centurion events, and I wondered if locals had been taking the tape down), but I did vaguely recognize it from my recce, and I remembered that there was a turning left somewhere along here and up a hill… Suddenly I noticed a piece of tape and an arrow telling us to turn RIGHT and I realised this must be where my recce loop had cut across. Another runner nearly piled into me as I braked and headed through the gate and onto a woodland footpath. ‘Thanks,’ he said, ‘I would have missed that.”
Another mile and I reached a road with a tall hedge on the other side. There was a bit of ribbon and an arrow pointing left. I couldn’t see any gap in the hedge to go through, so I turned and trotted down the road a way. After a while I realised I hadn’t seen any tape since turning. Then my watch buzzed and told me I was off route. I looked back and there were four or five other runners behind me, strung out over a couple of hundred yards. I stopped. “I think we’re going the wrong way.” A socially-distanced confab, then we started back up the road. Soon we spotted runners on the other side of that hedge, then came back into view of where we had turned, and saw a couple of runners going straight over the road and disappearing into the hedge. We started moving faster, then one of the guys spotted a point where the hedge was thin and we all piled up the bank and through, carefully avoiding the barbed wire. Runners ahead, runners behind – we were back on track.
Over another road, a turn and I recognised the trail: not from the recce this time but from the Ridgeway 86, as I’d reached Grim’s Ditch. It was nice running it in full daylight, rather than towards dusk as I had in 2018 or in the dark like in 2019. Still lots of large roots, but they didn’t seem too bad really, and I was able to enjoy it.
Final aid station, and we moved back off the Ridgeway – I’d somewhat assumed we would follow the Ridgeway back to Goring, but instead we were back on paths labelled ‘Chiltern Way extension’ or simply ‘Footpath’.
Because the first several miles had been quite flat, I foolishly expected the last section to be flattish as well, but there were several hills, if nothing nearly as large as the ones in the middle section. My legs felt somewhat tired. With the Autumn 100 coming up in another four weeks I decided that pushing myself to run faster wasn’t sensible, particularly as I wasn’t sure if there were any further hills, as I wanted to be able to train well in the intervening weeks. Once there were only a couple of miles to go, I was fairly sure it would all be downhill, and it was, so I enjoyed the running.
Suddenly, it seemed, I was back in Goring, dodging people on the pavement, appreciating some clapping and calls of support, and looking out for Centurion route arrows, as I had no idea which way to go. A couple of pauses to spot the next arrow at junctions, then finally I could see the finish – down the road, turn and cross the timing mats. A volunteer reminded me to stop my watch. Into the courtyard, where I picked up my medal, Stuart March took the finish line photos and Anna Troup gave me my T-shirt. We were being encouraged not to linger, so I got my tea and my vegan hot dog, thanked everyone again, then through the hall and back out onto the walled village green, where a number of runners and their supporters were standing or sitting, carefully separated in their little groups, and my husband was waiting for me. Done!
I sat down and ate the hot dog, pleased to be able to enjoy it, unlike just after I’d finished NDW100 when my stomach was not feeling happy. Aidan took a couple of photos, then we started to leave – and I realised I still had the tracker on my shoulder, so diverted back to the finish to hand it in before we wandered back to the car for the drive home.
Finish time 9:56:42, so nowhere near my 50-mile PB, but under 10 hours, placing 79th of 208 finishers (224 starters), 12th woman and second in my age group. Despite there seeming to be a lot of people overtaking me in the first few miles, and a few in the later sections, I had also overtaken some runners, and gradually moved up the rankings from 117th at the first aid station, gaining places in every section. The scenery was lovely, much of the route was runnable and apart from the wasp sting, it was a great day out running.