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Centurion Autumn 100: the ultimate community spirit

by Atanarjuat
Thursday 27th October 2016
The Start
In many ways, Centurion’s Autumn 100 (A100) brought things back a full circle for me. It was in August 2014 that I ran my first ultra event - TRA’s Ridgeway Challenge 86-miler - as a qualifier for following year’s Thames Path 100 (TP100), my first 100-miler. With A100 taking place on both the Ridgeway and Thames Path National Trails, the race brought me back to familiar territory. The four of us (Becky Shuttleworth, Justin Bateman, Sean Parry, and myself) who were initially brought together during a night reccie ahead of the Ridgeway Challenge and who have since become good running friends, were all entered for A100, as were Cat Simpson, Dudley Desborough, and Leo Palazzuoli from Fulham Running Club, so A100 had very much a social/community feel. Having run or volunteered at pretty much all of Centurion’s 50 and 100 milers over past 2 years, I knew already that there would be many familiar and friendly faces on either side of the ropes. Also adding to the sense of community is that, as the fourth and last Centurion 100-miler of the season, there was the prospect of the “400 miles - One Year” Grand Slam for those hardy bunch who successfully negotiated this final hurdle, and they’d all surely have felt the support and good wishes from everyone. Having completed TP100 and North Downs Way 100 (NDW100) last year and South Downs Way 100 (SDW100) earlier this year, I was going for merely a “career” slam, but with the added incentive of going sub-24 hours as I had managed at the other three.
In addition to my own target, I was rooting for Justin’s first 100-miler finish since, at last year’s TP100, he heartbreakingly had to drop at mile 95 due to serious injury. Sean and Becky had both completed NDW100 with me last year and I knew they were more than capable of getting the job done. Sean’s minimalist approach (i.e. almost no training prior) always had potential to throw up surprises while Becky, who went on to set the world record for fastest female ascent of Kilimanjaro in September 2014, just a month after finishing as second lady at Ridgeway Challenge, had mental resolve to spare. In addition, A100 would be the first 100 miler for the “superhero” that is Leo (he, erm, runs in a Superman jersey) and I felt things could go either spectacularly well or bad for him since he tends to run everything, and I mean everything, at a blistering 10k pace. Both Dudley and Cat were mentioned in Centurion Race Director’s pre-race notes as potential podium contenders, which is self explanatory, although I knew Dudley was nursing a niggle coming into the weekend and had only made up his mind to start a couple of days prior. 

Ilsuk family
Ilsuk's A100 family (photo by Justin Bateman)

A100 consists of four 25-mile out-and-backs along the four “spurs” of Ridgeway and Thames Path with Goring at the centre as the base to return to after each spur and is considered the “easiest” of Centurion’s four 100-milers. The numbers seem to bear this out, and last year 76% of the 205 starters finished the race under the 28 hour cut-off and 65% of those finishers earned the “100 miles - One Day” buckle. This compares to 72% finish rate and 62% sub-24 for this year’s TP100, the other “easy” 100-miler. The terrain at A100 is moderately undulating for the Ridgeway section (spurs 2 and 3) and largely flat for the Thames Path, which for some is preferable to the entirely flat TP100. Although some heavy rain was forecast for late afternoon Saturday and from early Sunday morning, the trails benefited from dry conditions leading up to the race.
Given the 10:00am start, I had the luxury of my own bed before hopping on the 7:32am train from Paddington. Many of those traveling from further afield had chosen to overnight at Reading and quite few ultra-runner types could be seen when changing trains there. Despite no longer considering myself a novice at this game, the charged atmosphere at kit-check and registration still gets to me, and it was with a few deep breaths that I managed to steady my nerves and hands enough to pin the #21 bib onto my shorts. This was then followed by nods of acknowledgement and encouragement to friends and acquaintances both racing and volunteering and the short walk up to Morrell Room in adjoining village of Streatley where the race was to begin following the briefing from James Elson, the Race Director.
Spur 1
At 10:00am exact the starting horn sounded and we set off north on Thames Path. This first spur is the flattest of the four and it is all too easy to get caught up in the moment and end up doing it at marathon-pace - which Leo subsequently went on to do, as we crossed each other while I was still a good mile from the halfway turnaround point. I stayed close to Justin, Becky, and Sean, who were all subscribing to Justin’s “run 9 minutes, walk 1 minute” strategy. Sean remarked how his legs were already feeling it after just 15 miles and we all concurred, filled with both apprehension and excitement at the 85 miles still to come. My own strategy was to simply trot at a manageable pace without any regularly prescribed walk break and I was in and out of Goring in less than a minute ahead of the others since I did not need to make use of the drop bag at this stage.
Grim’s Ditch
If ever there was a misnomer for a section of trail, it would be this, the most joyful of running stretch on all of Ridgeway. Whatever the etymology behind the name, I find this section, especially once it veers away from the Thames, always a pleasure to run in, with its tree canopy, myriad of roots to skip over, and the “big field.” Not long into spur 2 I caught up with Grand Slam hopeful Mark Thornberry who in typical fashion had started fast and we shared a couple of miles together before I pushed on ahead towards the turnaround at Swyncombe. About 2 miles before turnaround point I crossed with Cat who was literally bouncing along Grim’s Ditch back towards Goring. As it transpired, much of spur 2 is uphill going out so I too found myself bounding down (in a fashion) after the turnaround. Soon after starting the return leg it started to rain heavily. It was a few minutes before 5:00pm and I cursed BBC’s accurate weather forecasting before stopping to pull on my jacket. The head-torch however would stay in the race vest until after North Stoke aid station, 4 miles from Goring.
The Moon
Once at Goring I changed into long-sleeve top and leggings. James Elson had warned in his pre-race email that the Ridgeway can get very cold due to its exposed nature and strong winds. I took about 30 minutes here which is really too long but felt I needed every minute of it. A few miles away from Goring towards the end of spur 2 my left ankle started playing up which reduced me to walking and had me mentally calculating the kind of pace I needed to maintain just to finish within cut-off, never mind sub-24 hours. Justin kindly waited for me so we could start this second half of the race together while Becky seemed to be suffering with blisters as well as discomfort in both ankles and Sean stayed behind to wait for her. During this time I learnt that Dudley had dropped after 50 miles due to his niggle finally getting the best of him. Once we set off into the night and up the long gradual hill towards Bury Downs the ankle didn’t bother me so much and I managed to trot on where the gradient allow me to. I found during SDW100 that it helps to be harsh with myself sometimes and make it a rule to always “run the downhills” if you’re going to allow yourself to walk the flats and certainly the uphills. Justin was moving well and he power-walked faster than I could trot and was soon out of sight. At Bury Downs (mile 58) I had my first Gu gel. Another discovery from SDW100 was that the gels worked well for me, particularly in the latter half of the race, and I would go on to top up my energy levels with a gel at every check point (i.e. every 6-8 miles) from then on.
day night A100
The difference between day and night on the Ridgeway (photos by Justin Bateman)
This stretch was marked by the near-full moon which was also the harvest moon according to the lunar calendar. The clear night sky allowed for a glorious moon-lit landscape which made head-torches virtually unnecessary. Justin was leaving Chain Hill turnaround point just as I was coming into it and it would be a further 4 miles the other way from Chain Hill that I’d see Sean, meaning he was 8 miles behind me. I think it was here that Sean told me Becky had decided to call it a day. Apparently 100 yards out of Goring onto spur 3 her ankles were worse than ever so she decided then to turn around. With that news weighing me down, I realized that I hadn’t seen Cat or Leo either on this leg. It is easy to miss someone as you pass each other in the night, blinded by each other’s head-torch beam, so I just plodded on back to Goring to get ready for the final push to Reading and back.
The Rain
At Goring Justin, who had only come in seconds before me, confirmed that Becky had indeed dropped but that he had seen Cat on the return leg while he was still going out towards Chain Hill. Neither of us knew what happened to Leo. Setting off into the last section together Justin announced his intention to basically walk all of the last leg, knowing we had 7 hours remaining to make sub-24. He does have long legs though and I doubted my ability to walk 25 miles in 7 hours. Besides, it was hurting me more to walk than to trot so I negotiated with Justin and suggested if we get to Reading by 6:00am we would then have 4 hours to walk the 12.5 miles back. Being the good sport that he is, on my cue of “it’s downhill, innit?” every so often we’d break into a shuffle for a few hundred yards or so before resuming the walk. At the bottom of the hill before Whitchurch, about 3 miles from finish, we saw Cat speeding along, paced by her father. Wow - she was almost done while we still had 22 odd miles and at least 5-6 hours left to go! As it transpired Cat would come in 11th overall and 3rd lady at 17 hours 24 minutes.
Shortly after leaving Whitchurch aid station Justin and I caught a blurry figure as it sped into the aid station. It was Leo! He had left James who was pacing him for the 2nd half standing there outside the aid station so we chatted to James a bit and if I’m honest James looked a bit broken. And I thought “breaking the pacer” was only something that happened in films about ultra running! Leo would go on to finish in 18 hours 31 minutes for 15th overall. A truly incredible 100 mile debut.
For Justin and I and approximately half the field, there was still much to be done: about 20 miles, in fact. So onwards towards Reading we made progress in our own relentless way, past the “Welcome to Reading” sign that we knew was still miles from the turnaround point, past the many bridges in Reading town centre, up and over the footbridge just before the aid station, and finally onto the stairs leading to the aid station itself. It was just after 6:00am and it had started to rain, first gently then more heavily and persistently. It was also at Reading aid station that Justin and I learnt that Sean had decided to not bother with the last 25 miles and he too had dropped.
Leaving the aid station, Justin kindly “allowed” me to run ahead, for he was happy to walk it in. So it was that I then hooked up with Jim Vance, who introduced himself as a friend of Julian Desai, who I knew from volunteering together at SDW100 last year. Jim, I learnt, was rather special - in this, his first year of ultra running, he was going for both the 100 mile Grand Slam as well as the 50 mile Grand Slam. So, 8 ultras in one grueling season. And with his first sub-24 hour 100-miler in sight, Jim was very motivated to not leave anything to chance and we soon fell into stride alongside each other. 
It was both awe-inspiring and heart-wrenching, now in early morning light in persistent rain, to see the trail of runners still making their way towards Reading as we were nearing Whitchurch and the last 5 miles or so. It is to the credit of Graham Carter, Rachel Lonergan, Tinu Ogundari, Tim Cox, Kate Jayden, Phil Bradburn, and many others who finished in the last hour, however, that all of them were in good spirits and their quiet resolve evident.
The Finish
I pushed ahead of Jim just short of Whitchurch. I was feeling good and wanted to make up some places, so ran pretty hard pretty much all of last 4 miles, passing quite a few along the way. Coming into Goring at 23 hours 5 minutes, I didn’t quite have the same elation and relief all rolled into one as in previous finishes. On reflection, this is probably because in the weeks before the race I had adjusted my goals somewhat. Earlier on this year my target for A100 was to achieve sub-21 hours thereby getting me an entry to the Spartathlon ballot. In the months and weeks leading up to the race however, two things happened - I had developed a niggle in the achilles which hampered training, and then I became unsure I really wanted to do Spartathlon anyway. At any rate, having given up on my A target, achieving my B target of sub-24 hours with plenty left in the tank felt like a bit of a cop out. But a 100-mile buckle is still a buckle, I said to myself.

Ilsuk is all smiles, particularly when it's all over (photos by Stuart March photography)

I stayed long enough at finish to clap in Justin for his first and overdue 100 mile finisher’s buckle (a sub-24 at that!) as he came home in 23 hours 26 minutes. There was also a loud cheer for Russ Tullett as he finished in 24 hours 14 mins. Russ and I also go back to that August evening two years ago at Ridgeway Challenge as he too had been suffering knee pain and we kept each other company during that long walk through the night over the second half of the race. Russ gained my respect that night, having had to start his walk earlier and slogging on to finish a couple of hours after me (due mainly to his shorter legs I suspect). Since then, while I had returned to running almost immediately, Russ has had to endure two years of frustration, surgery, rehabilitation and virtually no running and yet, here he was, my respect for him renewed as he finished his first 100 miler in the face of such adversity.
Back home, after showering and while settling down for a quick nap before a roast lunch, I had a quick last look at the results, and had to do a double take when I saw the name Becky Shuttleworth: 25 hours 49 minutes, rank 133rd. Becky! A quick couple of texts to the Ridgeway Gang confirmed that Becky had indeed, after coming back to Goring and collecting her drop bag before handing in her number, had reconsidered and gone back out and gotten the job done! Just incredible. 
So, that was my A100. A bittersweet event for me but so memorable and significant on so many levels for others. And I suppose that is why we choose to embark on adventures such as this - in search of reminders that we, indeed, are alive and, quite often, indomitable. And lest anyone feel bad about Sean’s DNF, it seems he was merely saving himself for his tilt at the 50 miler Grand Slam, the final test of which is in November at Wendover Woods 50. 
Back home, I told my relieved wife that A100 was probably my last 100 miler. Fortunately for all involved, she does not yet know what the letters GUCR stand for :)

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