I’ve been asked to waffle on a bit about last month’s 100 mile jog round Wendover Woods. This one-off event was dreamt up by the always brilliant Centurion Running in response to popular demand (Facebook) calling for a 100 mile version of their regular Wendover 50 mile race.
Centurion ultras always sell out (sometimes within hours) so it was worrying to see only 45 entrants out of a possible 150 on the start line at 8am on a sunny July Friday. Perhaps this owed something to pre-race social media speculation that this 10 x 10 mile looped event would be at the tough end of 100’s with a 50% expected drop rate and sub 24 times only possible for the top runners. Alternatively it might just be that few people can be arsed running around the woods in circles for a day or so.
The course is ten loops of a ten mile circuit of Wendover Woods’ forest trails and tracks. It was presumably designed as a Home Counties homage to (in)famous Barkley Marathons in Tennessee which Centurion race director and Barkley participant James Elson labelled “Wendover Woods on Acid”. Whilst nowhere near as hilly as the Barkley WW100 promised around 20,000 feet of ascent and descent which is roughly equivalent to climbing and descending Ben Nevis four and a half times. Each loop has five killer (hands on knees) climbs called things like “The Snake” and “Gnarking Around” interspersed with some normal hills and even a few runnable bits. To put the elevation in context the record for running one 10 mile loop is 1:21. A couple of years back a Kenyan with a marathon best of 2:08 rocked up to Wendover Woods 50 and managed 30 miles in 4:19 before dropping out due to injury.
Last year I ran the 50 mile version in just over 10 hours so factoring the extra distance, running through the night and my inexperience I thought a sub-24 hour finish would be difficult but potentially do–able. The average loop time needed was 2 hours and 24 minutes which sounds pretty easy for 10 miles but according to the Centurion experts likely achievable only by the best runners – which certainly didn’t include me. Race favourite was Bristolian Stuart Leaney who is brilliant and modest in equal measure. He’s adept at flat – holding the 50k treadmill world record (2:59:39 if you are interested), has finished 24th at a little known race called the OCC in Chamonix and is also pretty much king of Wendover Woods breaking his own course record whilst winning the 50 miler in 7:16 last November. Despite this he told me on the start line that he the last time he’d been this nervous before a race was his first marathon.
My aims were one: finish and two: (the stretch target) go under 24 hours and thus earn a “100 miles in a day” buckle.The first few loops were about being conservative, walking the steepest downhills to preserve my quads and not dicking about in the aid stations. As Anita wrote in her amazing Devil’s Challenge report ultras can be “hare and tortoise affairs” so I wasn’t worried to be running back in the pack as it should pay dividends later. Finishing loop 1 in just under two hours I was in 17th and moved up a couple of places on each of the subsequent loops to reach 30 miles in 6:18 – 54 minutes ahead of sub-24 place. This might sound like a decent cushion but I was slowing down (as most people do in ultras) and during a 2:27 fourth loop, I realised that sub 24 was slipping away and began to focus solely on finishing, making the decision to hike the night time loops to reduce the chances of a race ending fall or sprained ankle. I hit the halfway point in 11:25 and in 13th place. Although the temperature wasn’t that hot (about 23 degrees) it was humid under the trees and I’ve suffered with hydration / cramp on previous long races (I sweat like a pig) so I was getting through about 2 litres per loop without really needing to wee. Apart from filling my water bottles and grabbing a slice of water melon I’d so far stuck to my plan of not spending much time in the aid stations.
There are a few unique aspects to loops vs. point to point courses. Things are going to get familiar and, depending on your outlook, boring. Crossing the start/finish line multiple times presents many opportunities for an easy DNF. Mentally, this can be quite challenging. My approach was to focus on the positives – knowing how far the aid stations / killer hills / ‘easy’ bits were and breaking the race down into segments. First three loops – nice and easy, next two – focus on getting to halfway, sixth loop I’d be nearing the furthest I’d ever run (another milestone). Loops 7 and 8 would be the ‘fun’ night time loops and then I’d only have 20 miles to go.
As Mike Tyson famously said “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth” and completing my sixth loop in 14:11 and in 11th I had a real low. It was already dark, over six hours of night time hiking lay ahead and I still had 40 miles to go. Mentally I was looking for a way out – trying to invent excuses for a DNF but physically I was ok so I changed my top, applied some anti-chafe cream, was spoon fed some tomato soup, put in the headphones for the first time and headed back out.
Miles 60 to 80 were the toughest part of the race – my mind was playing tricks on me. At some point a pack of Haribo Tangfastics had exploded in my race vest and every time I reached for my drinks flask my hands emerged covered in sugar and sticky – I became irrationally annoyed with this.
Thankfully Centurion was also staging a 50k race on the same course starting at 11pm so I had some company on the trails even if most of it was flying by my trudging carcass. There’s fantastic camaraderie in ultras and the encouragement of fellow runners coupled with texts and WhatsApp messages of support were a massive boost throughout. It’s amazing how seemingly small gestures and kindnesses make a difference and I doubt I would have finished without these. Of course the real heroes are the selfless race volunteers and hardy supporters. I had a great boost around 1am reaching the top of the steepest climb on loop 7 to hear cowbells and cheers from a few (possibly drunk) supporters who told me I was “moving well” (yes, clearly they were drunk).
In the final days before the race my feelings switched from excited anticipation to apprehension as the reality of running 100 miles began to dawn. The farthest I’d run before was 100k and whilst I felt I could have gone a bit further at the end of that race I had genuine doubts over my ability to finish a hundred. Partly because of this I’d deliberately not widely advertised that I was running the race as I didn’t want to explain / try to justify a potential DNF to lots of people. Nevertheless some people were aware – which maybe helped as motivation not to DNF.
Spirits improved a little as the sun started to come up towards the end of loop 8 but this was only a hiatus and as I completed the last few miles of the loop I found myself again searching for reasons to quit. Not having run a 100 miler before I’d always been surprised at how many runners drop out in the final few miles – so close to finishing, but I now have some insight. After all I’d run further than I ever had before, I didn’t really have anything to prove so why not just stop, hand in my number and go home to bed. As I battled with the urge to quit the mantra repeating in my head was “start loop 9 and you finish” – I knew that barring injury there was no way I’d DNF if I could start the penultimate loop. So finishing loop 8 in 20:13 I changed my top again, cleaned my teeth which felt great as the enamel was pretty furry after all the Coke I’d drank (see nutrition) and set off on loop 9 with determination – I was running, or at least trotting again and felt ok. The end was in sight and, after all, the last loop is the victory loop.
After the briefest of stops to top up Coke and Tailwind I was out on the final loop after just under 24 hours of running. Exiting the aid station I was surprised to pass Mari Mauland – an amazing runner from Norway who has won a load of races and represented her country. She said she’d been having stomach problems and vomiting since halfway which put my sugary hands into context. We exchanged words of encouragement and I said “see you at the finish” – which I think she misinterpreted as a challenge. About 2 minutes later she sped past and ended up finishing about 25 minutes ahead of me – don’t mess with Mari!
The final loop in the morning sunshine felt great, as I completed each of the big climbs for the last time I proffered a silent “Fuck You” – you didn’t beat me today. I’m going to finish.
I crossed the line in 26 hours 39 minutes and 47 seconds, eighth overall and sixth male. Of the 45 runners that started 20 finished – the final runner a little inside cut-off. All have my respect. Stuart Leaney’s winning time was an amazing 18:56, over 4 hours ahead of second place. Only the top three runners managed a sub 24.
Looking back I’m pleased with my effort. I considered quitting a couple of times but I never really, truly, came that close – then again I didn’t really have any minor niggles or injuries to give me the excuse – I think if I did it might have been a different outcome. I perhaps could have been a little more aggressive in the first half and run more of the night time sections but I paced it ok, didn’t waste time in the aid stations (I reckon that saved almost an hour) and thankfully didn’t have any major issues. I genuinely don’t think sub 24 would have been possible for me. Now I have a hundred under my belt I’m planning to try to be a bit more aggressive early on in my next race – perhaps risking a DNF but with the aim of finishing in the top 5%.
My preparation for the race was mixed. I’m not a high mileage runner but did up the distance a bit leading in albeit nowhere near the 40-50 miles per week I had planned. I managed only 3 weeks above 45 miles due to a combination of family / work commitments, my laziness and, tragically, the death of my Father. My longest run was a 50k ‘training’ ultra in May and a 20 mile course recce (I need a break from Wendover). My average pace was 15.5 minute miles (see “not that hard”) and consequently my recovery wasn’t too bad – by Tuesday I felt ok to run again but it has taken several weeks to run at tempo pace.
Ultras aren’t everyone’s cup of tea but I truly believe that if you can run 26.2 you can run 50 (and if you can manage a 50 you can probably do a 100. It’s not easy (what would be the point?) but it’s really not that hard either. I like to think of it asa long slow run/walk with plenty of cake, great scenery and some truly inspiring people – plus there are great bragging rights! With apologies to anyone I have omitted; Anita, Al, Phil and Teresa all have more ultra-experience but I’m happy to offer my limited insight to anyone who thinks they might like to give it a go. I’m also offering guided tours round the WW course! Finally, I’d definitely recommend Centurion events for newbies – their website offers an insight into how well organised their races are.
Apologies for the ramblings – if you made it this far you definitely have the mental strength to take on an ultra!
Loop 1: 1:57 (17th)
Loop 2: 2:04 (15th)
Loop 3: 2:15 (13th)
Loop 4: 2:27 (13th)
Loop 5 2:40 (13th)
Loop 6: 2:46 (11th)
Loop 7 3:25 (12th)
Loop 8 3:22 (12th)
Loop 9 2:59 (9th)
Loop 10 2:42 (8th)
Coke : 9.5 litres, Tailwind: 10 litres, Scotch eggs: 2, Soup: a few spoonfuls, Cup of tea: 1, Watermelon: loads, Haribos: several packs (one exploded)