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The Winter 100: Running a 100 mile Ultramarathon in the UK

Paul Ali


My last 100-mile race was the Winter 100 which took place in October 2014. This was the final event of the Centurion calendar year and the last event which makes up the Centurion Grand Slam of 4 x 100 mile events in the same calendar year.

The event involves completing 4 x 25 mile out and back legs along sections of the Thames Path and Ridgeway National Trail. The race was first run in 2012 and at the time was held towards the end of November but was impacted by flooding of the Thames and had to be re-routed (and it rained constantly for about seventeen hours, I recall) and the event was subsequently brought forward to mid-October.

I wasn’t in great shape six weeks out from the race, with a summer of lots of long races resulting in a cycle of taper, race, rest, taper, race, rest from May 2014. I did little training in between and had carried a few minor injuries, which is another trait of a typical hobby ultra runner. My race results and fitness had also been on a decline since that time.

The training didn’t quite go 100% to plan as I continued to experience a few minor niggles (sore knees and sore Achilles) which was symptomatic of my year. I also suffered a sprained ankle three weeks out from the race when running, which saw me having to hobble 10 miles back to my car on one Sunday morning run.

However, despite not hitting the mileage I wanted to and having to take a few days of enforced rest, I did get all my long runs completed each weekend and also completed the Purbeck Marathon. My final run was at the Longmynd Hike, a hilly 50 mile run or hike, two weeks out from the race, which then gave me a couple of weeks of rest.

In summary, I was feeling 90% fit, but I had some extra motivation after a poor effort on my last race and a bit of a side bet with a friend over my performance and eventual result.

Race Day

The Winter 100 is a local event for me and I live a 20-minute drive from the start. Knowing (and having recce’d) each leg of the course gave me a little advantage.

The plan for the race was a sub 20-hour finish broken down as 4 hours for Leg One; 4 - 5 hours for Leg Two; 5 - 6 hours for Leg three; leaving me with 6 hours for Leg Four. If I could get back to Race HQ at the 75-mile point by midnight (14 hours in), then I was fairly confident I could march out the final leg in 6 hours.

Leg 1 – Thames Path West (Miles 0-25)

I adopted a slightly different mindset for the race. Rather than assume my typical position somewhere near the middle to back of the field at the start and then work my way towards my general pacing group, I elected to start near the front with fellow club runner Wendy Shaw. It was Wendy’s idea to go for a fast, not quite suicidal, but comfortably quick pace, and we set off near the front of the field.

Wet weather had been predicted all Saturday but whilst it was overcast, it wasn’t raining and it was reasonably humid. I had decided to wear my leggings as I didn’t want to faff around putting them on if it rained or got cold at night but just wore a T-shirt at the start and was carrying a spare base layer and waterproof jacket if needed.

We set out quite quickly from the start at the Village of Goring, west along the Thames Path towards the turn point at Days Lock. This leg was a mixture of muddy paths, fields, and some road. The ground conditions were a little tricky in places resulting in a few runners falling over on the way (including me).

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The ‘out and back’ nature of the route means that everyone passes each other and as I got within a mile of the turn point, the lead runners were already on their way back and it was great to see the top guys in action. The girls would overtake me a little while later into the race!

After a quick stop and a quick water refill on the turn point it was back on the return leg which then resulted in me passing a stream of runners coming the other way and giving a wave, hello, high five, or a well done and heading back towards the start.

The path sections on the way back were a little more tricky after 150 odd people had passed through and I had to take care on some sections after stumbling once or twice and it was actually quite nice to have some road and pavement sections to break this section up.

I arrived back at the start in 3 hours 37 minutes, towards the top end of the field and ahead of schedule. Running too hard too early in a race of this distance can result in a runner suffering later in the race, but this was slower than my marathon time so this was a comfortable but fast pace.

With the 4 x 25 mile leg format of the race, the Race HQ was a busy place of operations for the next thirty hours with willing volunteers assisting runners at all stages of the race. The Centurion Running experience is first class with a loyal following of runners and helpers at each event and I was in and out of the Aid Station quickly, having grabbed some food and topped up my water supplies. I adopted a food and hydration technique of eating and drinking a little but often.

Leg 2 – Ridgeway North (Miles 26-50)

The second leg saw runners follow paths and pavement for a mile or two before following the Thames river path for a couple of miles, after which it’s more of a traditional trail route covering subtle gradual incline through bushes, trees, and more wooded areas. The weather was overcast and cool but there was some sunshine and this was a great leg to run, particularly on the turn when it felt like there was a lot of downhill.

I ran by myself for a few miles, passing through the interim Aid Station and grabbing a few snacks and a drink. I ran together with another runner, Scott, briefly before he moved on ahead and the lead female runner, Sarah, passed me around the section before Grims Ditch, looking very strong.

As I got within a few miles of the turn point, I saw the two leaders hurtling back towards me at breakneck speed with third place about 15 minutes behind them. Once again, the out and back nature of the race gives everyone a chance to see how other competitors are fairing from those at the front to those at the back of the field.

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I caught up with another runner, Paul, who I had spent some time with in the few weeks prior to the race, and we ran into the Aid Station together. We grabbed some food and drinks and then spent a few miles together on the way back. We were covering an area of runnable and slightly downhill terrain, making some good time.

When you are running a race of this length it's important to run your own race. The few miles I spent with Paul (who is generally a quicker runner than I am) made me feel like I was working a little too hard at that point in the race. Eventually Paul continued on at his own preferred pace. It was good to share a few miles with some good company, but I had to consider what pace would work for me.

I was ahead of my planned schedule and looking to arrive back at the half way point under eight hours. A friend had agreed to pace me for the next 25-mile section, and I slowed to a walk to make a quick phone call to advise him I was slightly ahead of schedule. Thankfully, he had the presence of mind to check the online tracker and was there when I arrived.

Some races allow a buddy or a pacer and they can be useful for having some company, help with motivation on the run and offer some additional safety during a night section of the race. In addition, it can be a great way of getting other runners and friends involved in a race. Strangely, not every runner wants to participate in an ultramarathon!

However, some races do not allow the use of pacers and you should always be prepared to run the race by yourself. I’m quite relaxed about having a pacer. It’s great to have a bit of company on a run but equally I feel comfortable running by myself for long periods. We had agreed that my pacer, Paul Stout, would run Leg Three, which I felt was the critical section of the race.

I reached the halfway point feeling motivated and in control of my race and had actually run one of my quickest 50 mile times. However, you don’t run a PB pace without having a few aches and pains and I was glad to change into a pair of Hokas and enjoy the comfort of some additional cushioning on my feet, which were starting to feel a little sore. 

Leg 3 – Ridgeway South (Miles 51-75)

Having gone out at a quicker pace than usual, I was in 9th position, and I knew from this point I would start to slow. It was now 6:00 PM and getting dark as we headed into the evening section of the race.

The plan was to run the flats and downs and hike the gradients for the next leg and see if we could complete this leg in around five hours, which would then give me a comfortable seven hours for the last leg to finish under my target. The first few miles were roads and paths as the route led onto the Ridgeway before a steeper section as you got to top of the Ridgeway. Then it was a series of undulating terrain.

We put our head torches on after a few miles as it got dark quite quickly, and then kept our run/walk pace going. A lot of the terrain on this leg was pretty runnable, with good quality track and path, if a little stony in places, and there were a few wet and muddy sections to pass through.

I was pretty familiar with the navigation and we passed a few people who had missed a turn and directed them back on course. It was nice having a home-turf advantage, as it provided confidence over my directions, knowledge of which sections were runnable and which ones I could take a break on, and it generally just saved me time.

My pacer, Stouty, did a great job keeping the conversation going and keeping me motivated although my legs were really starting to feel it and I found it more difficult to consume food as my body started to reject it. I started to convulse slightly when I tried to eat something. I found fruit to be the most palatable food to digest, because it's largely liquid and has a nice sharp taste. I started to survive on tangerines, melon slices, and grapes, but I knew I wasn’t eating as much as I normally do.

We ran, walked, and hiked towards the interim Aid Station, paused briefly for a cup of tea and then we pressed on. I was starting to feel the need for a toilet break to the extent I was having a slight stomach ache but I was hoping to get back to the comforts of Race HQ rather than using the outside facilities (i.e. a bush).

We jogged, marched, and plodded to the turn point and Aid Station and could start to see the twinkling of head torches approaching us from the opposite direction as other runners were heading towards us on the “out” leg.

The return leg felt more downhill than up and we jogged the downs and most of the flats and hiked the gradients, however gradual. I was definitely feeling the effects of the first 50 miles now as my legs were sore and aching (generally the hamstrings and quads) but we kept pressing on and were just about on course to complete this leg in around five hours.

We were passing runners coming in the opposite direction reasonably regularly now and kept offering a well done, wave, or acknowledgment as is the norm for these races, although, as it was pitch black, it was hard to distinguish who people were.

Stouty kept me moving, kept prompting me to run and I generally responded to this despite aching legs and a slightly nervous stomach. I was looking forward to some hot food and drink at mile 75, as well as a visit to the toilet.

I arrived back in the Checkpoint at 11:00 PM and immediately dashed to the toilet (ahh relief) and then tried to eat some chili and bread, which one of the Aid Station volunteers handed to me as another helped me with my bottles. I tried to eat the chili, nibbled on some bread but couldn’t really consume anything at all and headed back out for the final push. Stouty was leaving me here having pushed me along Leg 3. It was just my hometown stretch now.

Leg 4 – Thames Path East (Miles 75-100)

Thirteen hours into the race and I had a comfortable seven hours to go to complete the last 25 miles. The hard work had been done and I was feeling the aches and pains now.

The last stretch of the race is pretty familiar with the few miles into my hometown of Reading and this leg would be completed in the dark during the early hours of the morning.

I marched the first mile and grabbed a few shot bloks from my pack and tried to eat these but my body wasn’t reacting well to food and I convulsed and then spat these out. Back to fruit then . . . .

After this point I tried to run some small segments. I found it mentally difficult to string together even a slow run in the latter stages of a race and found myself running in short bursts and this is what I started to do, managing to keep the pace down to 11.30 – 12.30 minutes per mile.

I passed through the interim Aid Station and pushed on. A few miles later I spotted the tall, grinning form of Marco Consani, the race leader, and I gave him a wave as he passed me. By this point he had a commanding lead as it was a little while later that Ed Catmur, the second place runner, passed me on his way to the finish.

The rest of the route to the Aid Station followed my usual lunchtime run and I plodded my way along the well lit path past the Boatyard and then my office. It was a little strange seeing it at 2:00 in the morning. Finally, I was over the horse-shoe bridge to the turn point at the Boatyard.

By this time, the top ten runners were on their way back and Dave Ross, Sarah, Paul Radford, Debbie Martin-Consani and a couple of others had all passed me. I counted the number of runners on the way back which confirmed I was still in 9th place when I got to the Aid Station. Unusually, I was the only person there and had the benefit of silver service treatment from the volunteers on hand at the time.

I had a quick cup of tea and some fruit and then headed back. I was feeling pretty drained by now and I knew I hadn’t eaten the amount of food I normally would and found myself struggling to motivate myself to run at all and initially settled into a fast march on the way back. Based on my time, I was looking at a 19 hour finish.

I did try and run in short bursts although there was no real discipline here. It was simply a case of spotting a lamp post and running to it, marching and then finding the next landmark such as a bench, lamp post, or head torch and running towards it. I started a game where I tried to make sure I was running each time someone passed me in the opposite direction. It all helped to keep the miles ticking over.

About three people were close behind me (within five minutes time wise) at the turn and I assumed they would catch me up and overtake me. They were all running and I was feeling my lowest around here, and I started to work out a point on the way back where I thought I could hold my position. I decided this was the 90 mile point as anyone I passed there would be five miles behind (2.5 to the Checkpoint and 2.5 back).

As I passed through the familiar sites of Reading it started to rain. It didn’t feel heavy at first but was constant for an hour or two. I decided not to put my water proof jacket on initially as I was less than 10 miles to the end and I simply couldn’t be bothered. But after a while I could feel the rain had soaked my top-layer and was seeping through to my base layer and I paused briefly to put my jacket on.

In all honesty, there had been no running for the last couple of miles before the interim Aid Station point before the end. I stopped here for a cup of tea and briefly sat before quickly realising I was just wasting time and I thanked the guys and headed out for the final few miles to the finish.

Looking at my watch I was on for about a 19 hour finish, which would actually be a new Personal Best time by 40 minutes. That was good, but I couldn’t help feeling that there was a bit more to give if I could have motivated myself to run a bit more of this last leg. It was a slightly surreal position that I was well under my target and at some level didn’t feel the need to have to work any harder now. I suppose after 18+ hours of exercise, you can be excused for slacking off a bit.

I followed the wooded section a couple of hills away from the river, taking care to avoid the tree roots covered by fallen leaves in the dark. By this point, I hadn’t been caught by any of the three runners who were seemingly close behind me on the turn. I had assumed that they would have caught me earlier, and I probably would have just let them run on, but I now felt the desire to defend my position. I gradually started sneaking in short running segments, even if it was only 50 metres here or there, or perhaps longer on a downhill stretch.

By the time I got to within a couple of miles of the finish, I didn’t want to be caught and with the clock ticking over at 18.30, I really wanted to sneak in under 19 hours. 18 hours and 50 something minutes sounds so much better than 19 hours and something minutes. I started to jog a bit more through the fields and various gates and back onto the path. It was still completely dark as it was approaching 5:00 AM and Streatley Bridge took an eternity to appear. As soon as I saw it, I broke into a sustained jog and ran into Goring Village Hall for the final time to finish in 18 hours 56 minutes.

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The Finish Line

As is typical with races of this distance, there’s no feeling of elation, no rush of adrenaline, no emotional out-pouring. It’s simply a feeling of relief from it all being over.

The simple act of just sitting down and not having to get up is very welcoming. As you start to reflect on the race, you consider the moments when you lacked motivation. As the aches and pains start to disappear, you start to think where you could have saved some time on the run. A typical Ultra runner is never satisfied with their performance.

The finishing time was a new Personal Best and I managed to hold onto 9th position and completed the Centurion Running Grand Slam of events, so it was a fine outcome overall.

With a race of this distance, I’m a firm believer that the preparation and training you complete beforehand are the things that will get you through the race. A final thanks to the Centurion team and their army of volunteers who supported and put on a well organised race.

Photo Credits: Stuart March – Centurion Running

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Paul Ali is a Business Change Manager by trade working within the Insurance sector, husband/father and weekend Ultramarathon runner and is based in the United Kingdom. He has been participating in Ultramarathon running since 2009 and favours the longer distance races. Despite considering himself a typical hobby runner his running CV includes finishes at the Spartathlon, Thames Ring, multiple Grand Union Canal Race finishes, the Centurion Grand Slam and Caesars Camp 100 amongst many other races. He once ran a 100 mile race in fancy dress, has a poor record with wet weather at running events and writes about his running exploits on his personal blog which an be found at Ultra Avon.

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