Monday, 27th March 2023
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What does it take to do a hundred miler?

by editor
Monday 9th May 2016
Tags  Centurion Running   |   Thames Path 100   |   James Elson   |   Pip Haylett
Just what does it take to do a 100 mile race? The logistics, the number of people involved, the amount of food needed and just the task of marking 100 miles of trail is mind-blowing. And how about running one? 
We were at the Thames Path 100 to find out more about what it entails. We spoke to James Elson, head honcho at Centurion, who organise 50 and 100 mile events throughout the year. He’s a man who knows a thing or two about this sort of thing. He and his team have nailed the organisation side of things with military precision and he’s also quite good at running 100 mile races too, so he understands what makes a great, and safe, experience for runners. 

TP start

James Elson, the race director:
“Organising a 100 miler is much like running one in terms of how you one feels on exiting the event, without the sore legs and chaffing. 
The build-up begins the day after the previous edition of the race, when thank you emails and calls are fielded to the aid station landowners, course stakeholders and local councils - at the same time attempting to secure permissions for the following year. When those are in place, a date for registrations is launched and the previous years’ volunteers are the first to get their names down on the entry list. Then there’s the general opening and a flood of questions and entries all at once.
Around a month prior to the race, everything will ideally be sorted. But really it’s the framework that’s in place and the minutiae of race organisation then takes up seemingly every waking moment up to race day itself. I often lie awake at night for hours on end thinking over and over through the upcoming race, what’s been forgotten, what unique challenges we may face this time. But I know from experience, that it is the overthinking and preparation that leads to a good race.
A week prior to the race, all the aid station gear is packed. Every check point as a specific list of equipment to go out to it. We then load the aid station kit on to trolley cages, and those on to the 4 Luton vans it takes to get the kit down to / and bring back from the race. This job is carried out by myself and Drew Sheffield. Every aid station cage is thought through as we load it and discussed in detail, making minor adjustments according to the weather forecasts in the few days before. We then print all the timing sheets and compile the clip boards with all the information each aid station team needs. There are 25 clip boards per 100 miler. Meanwhile, across town, Nici is sorting bib numbers, co-ordinating the volunteers in terms of locations, timings and roles and generally piling through an obscene amount of pre-race admin.
Once the vans are loaded, they are collected by the two aid station set up teams, and the sweeper. And it’s off to the race!
Race morning arrives and Drew, Nici and myself travel down to registration to greet the volunteers and runners. The aid station set-up teams, meanwhile, are already down the course establishing the check points. It’s a common sense but probably not commonly realised aspect of 100 mile races, that there are only ever a very limited number of aid stations open at any one time. As a runner, it feels like the course is laid out from the start, but the reality is that the finish doesn’t get set up until 11 hours afterwards. The aid station set up guys greet the volunteers and establish the check points. A team then goes through behind them topping up missing items and discussing any final questions before the arrival of the first runners. At around 11 hours in to the race, everything is set up and ready to go, including our finish area. Between the front and the back, two staff members rove the course and fill in where required.


At the back, it is a very long day. The sweeper teams rolling in a group of two, take turns to clear aid stations, clean and tidy everything away, finalise runner passages through each check point and handle dropped runners that need relocating. That job continues for 28 or 30 hours, and at 4am on aid station 10 with a hall that looks like a field hospital and needs cleaning back to immaculate condition, that’s not easy!
Eventually the course closes behind the last runners, and we greet the final finishers. Everything is then taken back to the Farm, where Centurion Running lives, and a team of four of us unload everything out of the vans and check for wet items, fresh food that’s been hidden in boxes and can go rotten, and sort through any lost property/ drop bags left behind.
Then it’s home time and a huge sleep, for everyone!”

So what's involved in volunteering at a race like this? 
Kirsty, the start volunteer: 
I was one of the volunteers at the start of the race and it was quite an experience to see Richmond Town Hall transformed from public space and library to central hub for registration. Nici Griffin swiftly got everybody into position (car parking monitors, registration desk, kit checkers, shop) and we were ready for the runners. It was a real privilege to rub shoulders with these inspiring, nervous, apprehensive, excited runners and it was an unspoken part of your responsibility as volunteer to help soothe nerves, encourage and wish them luck. Because you certainly need a bit of luck on your side to complete a 100 miler. 
Once the runners set off the whole set-up was swiftly dismantled, put into vans and the Centurion convoy rolled on to its next destination on the course. I can’t recommend volunteering at one of Centurion’s events highly enough. It will inspire you to do big things, you will meet some lovely people and you will feel that in a tiny way you’ve helped them on their way. Centurion had 93 volunteers at this race, to ensure runners were safe and catered for, which just shows the scale of the organisation of a 100 miler. 

Eileen, the aid station volunteer: 

My experience was the best, I enjoyed every minute.
Arriving at Wallingford Rowing Club I knew nobody on the checkpoint, but within minutes we had all swapped marathon stories, and learnt at least one running memory from each other.
We all knew people taking part, so explained how they would be feeling at this point. One member of the aid station’s job was to sort out the food and drink supplies. 
This list included 5 loaves, cheese, a variety of fruit, sausage rolls, ham, peanut butter, soup, tea, coffee, you name it. These runners would be well looked after!
We soon learnt that the lead runner was nearing our checkpoint. Race Director James arrived, and chatted to us about his choice of running fuel, and was pleased we had bananas, and salty crisps on offer.
With flags out directing him to our aid station we awaited the leader’s visit. This was short lived as his wife and children had been looking after him at every crew point. He flashed his number before heading off on route to Oxford - now less than a marathon away!
While we awaited the rush of runners we made sure jerry cans were filled with water, and the area set aside for any 'casualties' was warm, and had everything we needed.Centurion members called regularly to make sure all was going well, and we had everything covered. My job was making sure all the runners, and later the odd pacer, had as much tea, coffee, soup, water, electrolyte as they needed. This job also included changing head torch batteries, zipping up pockets for runners could no longer feel their fingers, and making sure every runner left safe, and ready to tackle the next few miles. We were regularly updated with any runners who had dropped out, but that made it even more amazing to see the runners who made it to Wallingford - mile 77.5.
The top 10 board was updated, now came the rush! Within minutes we had a steady stream of runners, all amazed with the treats on offer, and all so thankful. I couldn't have wished for a better way to spend my Saturday night. At first it was the savoury foods, but as the night went on runners turned to the strawberries, apple, grapes, and kiwi. Almost every runner had tea, or coffee, the odd soup, and just a handful of hot chocolates. The checkpoint was buzzing, we had a great time hearing how everyone was getting on. Then I spotted my few running friends, their faces lit up, it was the best feeling. Months of training, injuries set aside, they were doing this.
By the early hours runners were getting low on energy, but after a good strong coffee, a chat, maybe a change of top they headed off into the new day! We saw the highs, and the lows, but just knowing that helping at the aid station made a difference to the runners was my reward. 
Lastly, just how does a person run 100 miles? What happens to your legs and what happens in your head?

Pip, the runner: 
How hard can it be to run along the river for a few hours, you just follow the path, right?  Well, Quite hard according to James and the pre race brief.  Lots of places to get lost, a very cold night forecast, and last year someone nearly died.  Unfortunately my family was at the start to hear this bit, but as there were 300 odd other people there, it wasn’t just me that they considered ‘crazy. 

Pip start

Due to some confusion over the two bank holidays in May, my wife had booked us on a flight to Inverness to see her brother on Sunday lunchtime, so if I was to make the flight, I was going to have to be quick.  No pressure, but if I wasn’t finished by 0930, they were going without me.  As tempting as a weekend recovering at home by myself was, longer term it would be better if I were on the plane too.
First 20 mile thoughts
Will my injured, and now hurting leg stop hurting
Wonder how far I can go before I have to stop due to injury
Should try to keep up with Geoff, he has done a lot of running
It’s quite hot isn’t it
First 20 mile chats
If we all just went to the pub now, we could get the crews to drive us to the checkpoints.  As long as we were all in on it, no one would know
Marco doesn’t believe you can change running form
Why am I running with a stick

Pip stick

Photo by Stuart March.

All the checkpoints are fantastic at Centurion events, the best thing for me is that some volunteers keep up with the runners, and are at every one of the first 5 or so check points.  It’s like magic, until you remember not everyone is only running today, some people have cars.  Still, very nice to see familiar faces and smiles, as bottles are filled and mini picnics eaten.
20 - 50 mile thoughts
Now it’s gone up my leg and across my lower tummy.  Is this a hernia?
Wonder how far I should go before I stop 
Why the hell have I got a Little Mix song in my head!  I hate Little Mix.
I’m way behind schedule
How can I make this up to my family.  I must start being nicer to them.
20 – 50 mile chats
What’s the best / favourite house you have seen along this stretch of river?
Why am I running with a stick?
Do you know ‘Black Magic’ by Little Mix?  I can sing you the chorus.
Nice day for a wedding

Nice day for a wedding.

Finally Henley rolled into view, and a chance to stop and sit for a bit, eat some hot food and take off my shoes for a few minutes.  After a slow, 20 minute pit stop, with support from wife and son, I was into the second half, and I was still going, and feeling pretty good.
Somehow I must have got mixed up with the climbers.net time prediction thing, as I thought I was way behind schedule, but had just run a 9 hour 50 miles, which is not far off my PB.
50 – 75 mile thoughts
My leg doesn’t seem to hurt any more than it did at 20 miles.
I know this stretch well, no chance of getting lost
Wow, it’s very foggy, I can’t see I thing.
I wish pacer Rob was here
Have I gone the wrong way?  Oh yes.
50 – 75 mile chats
None, too dark and foggy
I live in Wallingford, so getting to mile 75 and the checkpoint here was nice.  Although being only half a mile from a nice warm bed, and certainty that I would be on time for the flight, did seem a bit more appealing than running another 25 miles through the fog.  My friend Eileen was volunteering here, and I am pretty sure there is no way she would have let me go home, even if I had wanted to.
75 - 100 mile thoughts
Running over weirs in the dark is pretty scary
Can I stop soon
I can’t see I thing!
I’m very very hungy
Have I managed to get that Little Mix song out of my head?  Oh no.
Must be the finish soon
75 - 100 mile chats
Mostly grunting ‘you alright? As people passed me or I passed them
Comedy ‘pretend to run into the river’ whilst leaving the Abingdon checkpoint, which might not have been so comedy to the marshals there.  In my mind, it was hilarious… I was tired ☺
Last 5 miles with Ian, which made things much nicer as the sun came up
I couldn’t quite manage a sprint over the line, but I was very very glad to see the finish and to stop running.  I was secretly hoping for 21hours and 30mins, but as my previous best 100 miles was 22:30, that was always going to be ambitious.
But I had a good second half, and was able to make up some time, so I did get to spend a very uncomfortable few hours on an easyJet flight to Scotland.  Thankfully there were showers at the finish line, so it could have been worse for everyone.
I admit I did have to ask Nici to add me to the board – there was a space, which literally had my name on it.  The only time I think I will get anywhere near the leaders.

TP board

I had a fantastic day, really enjoyed it, and would definitely recommend this race to anyone / everyone.  Thank you to everyone who made it such a good experience!

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