What I was going to have to deal with however was some chafing so asked for some Vaseline to be on hand at the next aid station. Yep. Ultrarunning is all of the sexy. Just before arriving at Reading, the rain started so I stopped to put my jacket on, and I wouldn't take it off again all night. Reading was where Susie and Shaun were volunteering so I had another interview to give. I even thought up some great chat on my way there:
"It's like Transylvania out there!" (There were tons of bats swooping beside the river to get their insect dinners.)
Susie: So how's it going?
Justin: Piece of cake.
Susie: Really, that easy?!
Justin: What? No, I'd like a piece of cake. Do you have any?
In the end, I didn't say anything of interest at all as I was beginning to feel a bit weary. I had my bottles refilled by Paul Ali, saw Andrew Cooney making hot drinks, and found Tim Lambert sitting down looking a bit peeky. Turns out he'd been having stomach issues and was struggling otherwise I'm fairly sure I wouldn't have caught him up.
Reading to Whitchurch - 67 miles
Despite fatigue setting in, I was still about 30 minutes up on my sub-24 target so felt happy about that. Having recced this part of the course, running in the dark and rain was less of an issue than it might otherwise have been and although the miles didn't exactly fly by, I got to Tilehurst to meet Cate and Ivan in reasonable time and swapped my soaked gloves for ski mittens, an inspired impulse purchase some months previously. Warm inside and waterproof outside were perfect even if they did get a bit too warm now and again.
At this point, I saw Claire and Dan, professional ultra supporters with their pom poms. Great to see them and astonishing really, given the horrible conditions. After navigating the housing estate, we were soon back down by the river and I caught up with Colin Barnes, recognisable by his hand torch and a walk that was faster than most people's run. We came into Whitchurch at about the same time and were soon followed by Ilsuk, Tim and a few others.
Whitchurch to Streatley - 70 miles
As I made my way back onto the main road at Whitchurch, a marshal reminded me to switch my torch on. I said yes, didn't, and then got reminded sternly and immediately. I think it's because there was street lighting but maybe I wasn't functioning quite right by then.
Anyway, the next section was the fun bit with a couple of hills and some winding single track. I fairly raced some of this as I think I'd had a rare caffeinated gel. I tried to stay on real food throughout and this worked well but maybe 3 or 4 gels didn't half give me a boost when eating became harder.
To give you an idea of what I mean by 'racing', I still struggled to keep up with walking champion Colin and he disappeared into the night again when my head torch batteries gave out and I had to change them in the middle of a field. There's nothing quite like having no light source to remind you how far you are from civilisation.
In fact, it wasn't that far at all and I was soon in the warm embrace of the Streatley aid station. I went to the disabled toilet (completely justified in my opinion) and then had some pasta and some incredible cheesy rice balls that I returned for more of after I'd left the building, thus briefly confusing the number checking volunteers.
Streatley to Wallingford - 77.5 miles
I'm not 100% sure but I think I ran this section by myself. I know there was a road section, a well-lit farm building and I saw a vole which made me think of Wind in the Willows. This also felt like the longest 7 miles ever. At least until the next section...
Wallingford to Clifton Hampden - 85 miles
I didn't really need anything material from my crew at Benson, just a mile or so after Wallingford, but the morale boost was crucial. I was having to force myself to run now and someone was definitely elongating the miles because they could get away with it in the dark. At least that's what my addled brain was thinking.
It was so fuzzy that I forgot to get the one thing I really did need and that was Vaseline. Again. Thankfully, I remembered I had a small jar that I was carrying and applied liberally to my chafed cheeks to huge relief. I think that saved me, although all I could think for the next 8 miles was, "Must wash hands before anything else at Clifton Hampden."
This section was a blur at the time due to the persistent drizzle and now as well. All I can recall was that it was way too far between aid stations and I wished that I was fitter so I didn't have to walk as much.
Finally, a hardy volunteer on a bridge pointed me to salvation and I met Cate (who handed over the Vaseline) and I sorted myself out. This was the first time I showed any sign of not being in good shape, but my quads were shot by now and 15 miles didn't feel close enough to the finish for it to give me a lift. It was only 4 miles to the next crew point though so I agreed to see them at Culham, a couple more miles before the penultimate aid station at Abingdon.
Clifton Hampden to Abingdon - 91 miles
This was another blurry section punctuated by a desperate need for a poo (successful in spite of getting a twig up my bum, sorry bushes near Culham), being cheered on by Dan and Claire again and telling Cate and Ivan I'd see them at the finish.
It was light by now, which was good, but the rain was heavier and subsequently so was the ground which made progress even harder than it already was. Eventually Abingdon hove into view and after a brief pit stop I pushed on. I'd made it to 91 miles in 20 hours and 46 minutes.
Abingdon to Lower Radley - 95 miles
With more than 3 hours to cover 9 miles for my sub-24, I could have walked it in. Others around me had this plan and maybe I should have played safe and done the same. But although I was knackered, I wanted to get it done so still tried a bit of running every now and again. One such effort caused pain at the back of my left knee, not dissimilar to the muscle problem I'd had on the right side earlier this year. From then on, I walked. No sense in making it worse. The rain was still falling as I reached the final aid station and although I wasn't hungry, the team there insisted everyone eat as this is where it can all go wrong. I found a peanut butter white chocolate blondie thing which was heaven and set off for the final leg.
Lower Radley to Lower Radley - 95 miles. Again.
As I walked up the field by the river, my left leg started to stiffen up. It had been mobile before the aid station but apparently stopping wasn't a good thing. My strides became shorter and walking became more of a hobble.
Uh-oh. What was that? I tentatively moved forwards.
There was no sound but things - muscles? tendons? ligaments? - were moving unnaturally in my left leg. I found a fence post and leaned, stretching my leg. I massaged it gently. Nothing made any difference. I walked again.
I looked at my leg. That didn't help. I figured it was about 4.5 miles to the finish. I regularly run a 4.5 mile loop taking in Putney and Hammersmith bridges along the Thames Path. I tried to imagine walking that in my current state. I shuffled forwards but my leg just wasn't playing anymore. It wasn't even that painful, it simply wasn't functioning like a leg should.
I stood still wondering what to do. I could probably get to the finish eventually but at what cost? How much damage would I do? It was also cold and raining and I was no longer moving quickly enough to stay warm. I decided it was time to get back to warmth and safety and started the slow shuffle back to the aid station.
As I did so, a steady stream of runners was coming the other way with that one-day buckle look in their eyes. There was a lot of sympathy for my plight and Tim even tried to persuade me to get there but it wasn't happening. I reached the haven that was the boat club and told them I had to drop out. I sat down, was wrapped in foil, covered in blankets and given a heater, coffee and some more of those heavenly blondies while I waited for my crew to pick me up.
It's Tuesday now and my leg is improving but it's still a struggle to walk. The usual post-ultra pains are almost gone - it's just the injury left. So physically I'm not in great shape but mentally I feel good. I know I made the right decision to stop. I also know I can get that 100-mile buckle, be it in one day or a bit more. I think my race management was pretty much spot on, especially judging by some of the stories I heard and even other people I saw.
Exactly two years ago I ran my first marathon so I've come a long way since then. Maybe I should have taken longer before getting into ultras but at 42 years of age, there's no time like the present. I don't regret any running I've done. In fact, running (almost) 100 miles is one of the best things I've ever done. It's really bloody hard but with the right training and a positive attitude it's totally achievable. I entered the race as I wanted to push myself to the limit and I think I did that.
Perhaps I need to improve my overall strength so that this sort of injury doesn't happen again. I'm also keen to learn more about every aspect of running so I can continue to help other people fulfil their running aspirations.
Thanks first and foremost go to my incredibly patient and supportive girlfriend and crew member extraordinaire, Cate. Second to Ivan, who drove them both around all day and night allowing me to indulge myself in this brilliant and ridiculous hobby. Third, to everyone who wished me well online and in person. Fourth, to all my fellow runners out there. Whatever happened at the weekend, you're amazing just for having the guts to get out there. Fifth and finally, the Centurion team for putting on a cracking event, looking after us idiots and being fantastic. Special thanks to you guys at Lower Radley. If I could just bottle the community spirit I felt all weekend, I'd be a millionaire. Of course, being community-minded I'd share it with you all.
Although disappointed not to finish, I'm really proud of how I did and I think those close to me are proud too. There are of course a few things I wish I'd got but didn't...
- the opportunity to dance over the finish line like this: