“Best DNF ever” is how a friend described my Centurion Track 100 in 2021.
Which probably tells you two things. One, I have great friends! And two, that running 96.5 miles faster than you’ve ever ran them before and then DNFing the race as you couldn’t run the final 3.5 miles in 33 minutes is pretty impressive as DNFs go!
It turned out I’d torn two quad muscles in my right leg which explained why I was unable to stand upright and run fast enough to meet the 17 hour cut-off, but whilst my CT100 had ended in failure, I still looked back on it as one of the most positive running experiences I’d ever had, but I knew I had unfinished business with it.
The race excited me because I know the level of runner I am, and to run 100 miles in under 17 hours was going to require a pretty much perfect race from me, plus a little bit of luck sprinkled on the track in Bedford, so that the stars aligned for me on race day.
Training this time around had gone like a dream. I’ve been working with James Stewart as my coach for the last 2 and a 1/2 years and we know what works for me. I’m not a super high mileage runner, I tend to run 65-75 mile weeks consistently throughout the year and for CT100 we peaked at a couple of 80ish mile weeks. I also know that really long runs don’t work for me, and my longest runs in the 4 month build to CT100 were Seville marathon and Brighton marathon, the remainder of my long runs were in the region of 20-24 miles, and there weren’t any back to back long runs. This isn’t to say this is the ‘right’ way to train for a 100 mile race, but it’s the right way for me.
I’ve always spent hours on S+C each week and my injury at CT100 was the first proper injury I’d had in 10+ years of running, but I wanted to do everything I could to try and avoid anything like that happening again, so my amazing physio Dawn Buoy @ Body Rehab helped me work on any weaknesses, which basically involves her making me do all the things I don’t like and I’m not very good at!
I’d also fine tuned my nutrition with lots of long runs taking on 80-100g carbs an hour, with a plan on race day where I’d start off at about 55g and work up to 80g if my stomach was feeling good.
Basically I’d done everything I could to finish CT100 this time around and I had a 16:50 hours target time. With the knowledge that I’d done everything I could to prepare myself, if I failed this time I was quite at peace with that outcome, and it would just mean I wasn’t quite good enough to run 100 miles in under 17 hours. In fact, failing the first time around had taken any fear away from me, and in the weeks leading up to the race there were no nerves and I was just excited to race.
This is how my day played out trying to run 100 miles faster than I’d ever run 100 miles before:
Sunnies and music on
Running a track ultra is like being inside a goldfish bowl, there is literally NOWHERE to hide! With some late withdrawals in race week, there were only eight runners starting, this meant everyone at the track was going to see your every move and every low point. Regardless of the weather or time of day, I always wear sunglasses at a track ultra as it helps me get into my own little world and block out everything and everyone around me. The same goes with music. I know a lot of runners save music until the later stages of an ultra when they need a boost, for me I had a 17 hour playlist that I used from the start. People might still be able to see my every move, but as far as I was concerned, I’d blocked everybody out!
I always break a 100 mile race down into 4 x 25 miles and the first 25 miles flew by. Conditions were perfect and everyone quickly settled into their own 100 mile groove. I was lapped many many times which I was fully expecting, as I was the slowest runner on the track, but I learnt last time (when the entire field had lapped me within the first mile!) to not worry what anyone else was doing as we all had our own very individual goals – Dan was targeting various World V50 records, Ingrid was aiming to beat the Norwegian 100 mile record, me I was just aiming to run 100 miles faster than I’d ever run it before.
Ignoring the watch
I knew what I needed to do to run a sub 17 hour 100 miler, but running to pace or HR would take all the joy out of running for me, so I always run ultras purely to feel. I know that I’m so in tune with my body that I know what 100 mile effort should feel like. I had a very loose plan based on previous races, that if I could get to 50 miles in 8:10 hours, that would give me 8:40 hours to run the second half, and leave me with a 10 minute buffer – sounds so simple when I put it like that! However, I wouldn’t stress if I got to 50 miles a bit quicker or slower, the main thing was for me to get to 50 miles feeling really good.
I sometimes find the second quarter of a 100 mile race can drag a bit as your legs have got 30+ miles in them, but they know there’s still a LONG way to go. There was none of this in the second quarter at the track, sometimes you run races and every mile can feel like a slog, and sometimes you run races where the miles fly by, and CT100 was firmly the latter. I was enjoying myself so much I almost felt a bit sad that the day was going so quickly!
I hit 50 miles in 7:51 which was a 50 mile PB, and 22 minutes quicker than I got to 50 miles the first time around, but because I felt so good, I had confidence that I’d paced myself well and knew I had plenty left for the second half.
I knew the 17 hour cut-off was never going to leave me with much room for error, but this time I didn’t ever think about the cut-off and I felt totally in control throughout. Yes finishing an ultra is never a given until you cross the finish line (I’d proved that at the final hurdle last time!), but from the half way point onwards I truly believed I was going to finish.
Anyone who has ever crewed for me knows I am the ‘Queen of the Race Spreadsheet’, I do all my planning pre-race so I don’t have to think about anything during the race. However, I’ve been running ultras long enough to know that even the best-laid plans don’t always work out.
I’d done a nutrition plan based on what worked for me really well at Daytona 100 in December, with a Mountain Fuel Jelly every 30 minutes and then drinks to top up my calories/carbs. I had no stomach issues at all, in fact it was so hot in the day Tom was making emergency supermarket trips to buy me extra drinks. What I hadn’t factored in was that it was 25 degrees at Daytona, compared to temperatures at CT100 that started at 4 degrees and only went up to a high of 13 degrees in the day. These were perfect conditions to run in, however it meant I struggled with liquids from really early on, as in cooler temperatures I can’t drink a lot. This meant I averaged about 60g of carbs an hour purely on gels, which was at the lower end of what I’d planned, but I didn’t ever feel like I was lacking in energy and was able to run strong until the end.
My crew tried various different drink options for me so I was taking some liquids on, and we found I could stomach lukewarm peppermint tea and sugar, so I’d take a few sips every hour. It was only after about 15 hours that my stomach really gave up on me when I tried to drink too much tea and it came straight back up, so between the miles of 90-96 I had to make several emergency portaloo breaks and allowed myself the luxury of a few short walk breaks. Pre-race I thought I was going to be so close to the cut-off that I wouldn’t have any time for an occasional walk break, so to be in the position where I could, felt like a complete treat and meant I could get myself back on track to finish strong.
The inevitable hard bit
All races, whatever the distance, are going to be hard at some point. I always think if a race is a minimum of 80% of joy and a maximum of 20% of questioning your life choices, then that’s a good ratio to aspire to, as at the end of the day we do this for fun. However, I was well into the third quarter of the race and everything was still feeling relatively easy and I’d hit no real low points. 100k passed in 9:52 hours, this was about 25 minutes faster than my 100k split in any previous 100 mile or 24 hour race, but again I didn’t worry about pacing as I knew I still felt really good.
When I’d run Daytona 100 my quads had felt trashed for the final 20 miles and were screaming at me every step, here my legs never really felt that tired or achy. Even at 90+ miles they didn’t feel any more tired to how they’d felt after the first marathon.
It wasn’t until about mile 90 that things started to feel hard and the 6 miles up to mile 96 were the hardest of the day as my stomach would not cooperate. I remember two thoughts going through my mind. One, that I was so glad this wasn’t a 24 hour race and I could finish at 100 miles! And two, wondering why on earth I’d chosen to do this instead of running London marathon this weekend?! But overall, CT100 was a race of about 95% total joy/5% questioning my life choices, which is a ratio I can definitely live with!
My Strava tells me that I had 10 minutes of stoppage time during the race, which might not seem a lot to some people, but on a track 100 miler I’d have liked to have been well under 5 minutes, but all those 10 minutes were spent in the toilet, so I guess you can say they were time well spent!
Some things are worth the wait
Passing 96.5 miles was such a psychological boost for me as it was where I DNFed last time, when Tom and James told me I wasn’t going to make the cut-off. This time at 96.5 miles I was running strong with the biggest smile on my face. Nothing was going to stop me from crossing the finish line this time and the final 3 miles felt like a victory parade, which had been 2 years in the making!
What happened last time was a freak injury, but the reality was I just wasn’t quite good enough to finish, this time I felt I deserved to finish and my last lap of the day was the quickest in 2:08 minutes and I savoured every single step of it.
Centurion Track 100 2023 finisher. 16:43:32 hours. Best feeling ever!
Thank you to Centurion and all the volunteers for putting a race of this nature on and doing everything they could for all the runners and crews all day. It was extra special to have Zoe there – I’ve coached Zoe for several years and she’s become a great friend. She was volunteering last time I ran it, but I forbid her to stay until the end as she was running a marathon the following day! This time she informed me she didn’t care what I put on her training plan for the Sunday, she was staying until I’d finished!
As always it’s the crew who do the hard work, all I had to do was keep moving on the track for 17 hours, whereas they ran around after me all day. Tom has spent many hours at the side of tracks crewing me and always knows what I need, often before I know myself! This time he was joined by a lovely friend Vicki, and you know you’ve hit the friends’ jackpot when you’ve got friends who give up their weekend to stand at the side of a track, run around after you all day, cheer you every lap and then have to listen to you being sick into a plastic bag on the journey home!
And finally thank you to James Stewart for the coaching and more importantly always making training and racing a total joy – sub 17 baby, we did it!
All photos thanks to Centurion Running / Pierre Papet.