Now safely back home I can reflect on my last race of the year “Piece of String”
This was the inaugural Fun run known as the Piece of String dreamed up by James Adams who in turn persuaded James Elson of Centurion Running to host the race along side the Winter 100. The idea is quite simple the runners have no idea how long they are going to be running for, it could be anything from a quick dash to weeks, the possibilities were endless.
To enter the POS we had to send an email stating why we wanted to run the event, together with the most miserable looking photo we could find of ourselves. Apparently about 50 people applied for a place and 16 unlucky individuals were chosen. When I saw the start list I began to feel slightly nervous, the list of achievements was outstanding, Decca Ironman, double crossing of the Channel, running across countries, good grief this was a strong field of individuals.
How do you prepare for a race when you don’t know how long it’s going to be? People were trying to second-guess the distance, lots thought it might be the entry fee but that would be far too simple for James Adams. Mentally for me, as long as the race wasn’t longer than 3,200 miles everything was OK. The distance wasn’t the issue, however when it comes to racing I’m a fairly organised person and I did find the lack of being able to be organised quite difficult, but decided that the best option was to take oodles of kit to cover every eventuality and distance together with enough food to feed an army (we had been instructed in an email to bring food and enough for friends!!). Thanks to X-Bionics I had awesome kit and on my feet I wore my usual combination of Toetoe Socks and Wigwam Socks, which works and my new Aspire pack. We had been told to bring a couple of maps with us, these I had marked up with the START together with the W100 CPs, and this might make navigation slightly easier. I also popped in a sleeping bag in case I needed to put my head down at any point during the race. With the car loaded up I headed towards Streatley.
I met up with Sam Robson and Alex Flynn at about 6.30pm in Streatley where we went to the pub, had something to eat before heading back to the Hall where thankfully we bumped into the race organisers who were off to the pub for their supper, they gave us the keys which meant that Sam and I could unload our cars and get a bit of sleep.
Runners began to trickle in bringing with them huge plastic boxes of food and kit, perhaps I hadn’t bought enough! Some of the runners had already pulled out leaving 10 of us “idiots” to attempt this fun run. I was the lucky one with 9 men to chase! About 20 minutes before we were due to set off we were given our race briefing which was short and sweet then Sam Robson was given the job of selecting one of the 5 envelopes which would be our “piece of string”
The weather over the past few days had been dreadful, flooding up and down the country, which meant that the various routes that had been planned for the Winter 100 runners and us had to be changed from a safety point of view, which was going to make our fun run even more interesting!
At 00.01 on 23rd (24th really) armed with the first set of instructions we were sent on our way, being told that at the CP we would be given our next instructions. Thankfully the rain and gale force winds weren’t due until about 9am so although cold it wasn’t wet. Our first section was up onto the Ridgeway heading towards Bury Down. The front runners went off at a very fast pace, I was quite happy running at a good but comfortable pace. I ran for the first section with Lee Chamberlain, great to catch up on his plans for next year, 4 of us went slightly wrong missing a turning, thankfully not very far so were soon back on track again. Having run under the A34 we spotted the headlights of a car where Jennifer Bradley greeted us, checked we didn’t need anything before sending us back to Streatley for our next instructions. The return journey Lee dropped back a bit, I shouted to him to see if he was OK which he replied he was so I was happy to continue with Chris and Mick.
I’m not one for spending time at CP’s but on this race everyone appeared to be far more relaxed which was marvellous. The boys seemed far too relaxed, drinking cups of tea, chatting, eating; it took a bossy woman to get them going again! We were given our next set of instructions, which would take us on a muddy, hill route round the Chiltern Way, which also included some rather creepy woods. This section required navigation that you would have thought with three people reading maps would be easy! (Giggles to myself) The first section was pretty straight forward, however we ended up on a road that we shouldn’t have been on and after a lot of running up and down the roads to try and work out where we were (about 4am) we found ourselves back on track again. I laughingly said to the boys that it would be very funny if James sent us back on this route when we get back to Streatley – it’s the sort of thing he would do and guess what, that’s exactly what happened!
The second loop was a little more interesting than the first as it was now getting lighter so we could enjoy the views as well as get even muddier and thought perhaps that we might be able to find the correct route this time – not a chance. All three of us were looking for the sign but missed it again, can you bloody believe it, a bunch of useless runners we were!
Back at Streatley I changed my top but left my socks and trainers as they were, although my feet were wet, they felt good so no point in changing something that is working well. More food, teas, chats and trying to persuade James that he could tap me on the shoulder any time to say finish (fell on deaf ears!) we headed out towards the Ridgeway on the other side of the Thames. The route was diverted because of the flooding. I was shocked at how much the river had risen and the mount of water in the fields, it reminded me of 2001 when I ran the Thames Meander, the Thames was so flooded then we had to run mainly on the roads. Mud, mud, glorious mud, a hippo would have felt at home. We wadded through one gate but decided against going through the next section, as we couldn’t work out how deep it was (a walker said the water had gone up over his wellies). We rang James to see what he had to say. Our main worry wasn’t about getting wet, but more concerned about the bad weather was due and so didn’t want to get stuck or put ourselves into a potentially dangerous situation, especially as the rain that was forecast had just begun. We were told to return to base where we would be given our next set of instructions, but he would devise a route for us which would make up for the miles we missed – more than happy with that.
With new maps and instructions the three of us set off in the rain and cold towards Wallingford, which was a CP for the W100 runners. To be quite honest I don’t really remember a lot of this section apart from the fact that it seemed to go on for a very long time. We started on the Chiltern Way then I think meandered towards Woodcote, onto the Ridgeway (which was thankfully marked with tape) then onto Wallingford. However, about 4/5 miles away we passed Wouter running towards us, which meant we would also be coming back this way. Once onto the Ridgeway everything was going well, running comfortably, feeling good, but it seemed to be taking too long to get to Wallingford and we kept seeing W100 runners who we had seen not that long ago, something was wrong. We asked the runners where the CP was and they said about 3 miles back there, a bit of a flat moment for me but there was nothing for it but to retrace our steps. When we got to the place where we had gone wrong it was very obvious, instead of turning sharp right and going under a small road tunnel, we had continued along the Ridgeway back towards Streatley – plonkers!
Arriving at the Wallingford CP was the highlight of the race, we were greeted by Santa (Ryan Brown) and his little helper dressed as an Elf – Nicole Brown, both gave me a marvellous hug, which was much needed. This was a bit of a low point for me, not because of the distance or even lack of knowing the distance, I was frustrated at getting lost and cold, no thoughts of giving up just a low point. Nics and Ryan sorted me out, the boys tucked into food and hot drinks were the order of the day – a great festive CP thanks!
I was delighted to be told that our next section was heading back to Streatley but following the W100 marked route rather than the way we had come, this was such a boost we set off with a spring in our step, no navigation for a bit, marvellous.
Due to the lack of mileage on the Thames section, James had devised a 5 mile route for us to run, thankfully all along roads but was hilly. It was lovely being able to run and all three of us enjoyed this section to be able to stretch our legs. To keep us motivated we pretended it wasn’t raining but nice and sunny. We did have a discussion about cold baths at one point; we had all tried them and had come to the conclusion that the weren’t for us, we were obviously hot people!
More hot drinks back at Streatley, a complete change of tops plus I added a few more layers, as I was bloody cold at this stage. Next section was to take us out towards Sonning, Reading. Well what can I say about this section. It was pissing with rain, the wind was picking up but we were very careful on the navigation side going through the woods. Trying to find the correct bridle paths and footpaths in the dark was very difficult, plus to make it more unpleasant it was like wading through treacle in some parts, ok nearly all of it! We got quite cold doing this section as running was difficult due to the amount of mud and navigation required, but all was going well, until for some reason we headed North instead of East and ended up after 8 miles of running in Woodcote. The three of us stood under a lamp, cold, wet, pouring with rain trying to work out where we should be heading (its amazing how you can make the roads on a map fit where you are!!!). Thankfully just up the road was a pub so we popped in there to sort ourselves out. We took our wet gear off which festooned the pub radiators while we looked at the maps. We finally rang James who told us to take a different route which should be the same distance as heading towards Sonning (thankfully I had my garmin on so was able to prove the distance we had done) We ran down to our favourite road Beech Lane and from there did the reverse route of the Chiltern way that we had already done twice. It was very odd doing something the other way round, you think you are going to recognise the route but we had to concentrate or would have missed a turning, boy did it look different that way round.
Another deja Vu moment returning to Streatley, but it had a lovely warm homely feeling to it at this stage of the race. Another change of clothes, popping waterproofs on radiators to try and dry them out (dry a waterproof out, hahaha!) more food and hot soup were consumed by the three of us before being sent out again towards the Ridgeway loop we done at the beginning. By now it really was tipping it down – I know I’m banging on about the weather, which is very dull, but it was very wet! I had a hat on with a Buff on top to keep my ears warm and the hood of my jacket up to try and keep as dry as possible. My gloves were soaked through within seconds, but we kept going nice and steady. All three of us were having problems with the sleep monster and Chris was having a bad time, but we ran as much as possible to keep warm staying focused on the car lights ahead. The car turned out not to be a CP but crew telling us that our CP was about 2 miles away.
My body temperature wasn’t warming up; you know that feeling when your bones are cold? That’s how I felt, cold to the core, but there was no choice but to keep going. Eventually the lights of the car appeared in the distance and like any CP at night it never seemed to get any closer! Mick ran on slightly ahead to make sure the car heaters were on; we all piled into the ambulance, took off our wet clothes and tried to warm up with a tea or two. I didn’t know what to do, I couldn’t warm up even in the Ambulance, I was shivering so much I could hardly drink my tea (thankfully it had a top on so didn’t spill) and we were told that the next stop was at 4 miles away. Chris and Mick had decided to stop at this stage, which mentally was a tough call for me. Before the call was made I needed to think in my head, be true to myself about how I really felt and if I stopped that was fine, but I had to be happy it was the right choice when I woke up in the morning. I hate having to give up, but physically the cold had got to me and I genuinely didn’t feel that it was safe for me to continue the way I felt, pathetic maybe, but it was the decision I had made and the call was put in to James – it was about 2am on Sunday morning, a very low point for us all.
When we arrived at the home CP I sat in a chair not quite knowing what to do, I was so cold and shivering I bent over towards my lap to try and get warm. Claire Shelley said she didn’t recognise me when I came in I look so awful, but Jo Kilkenny and Claire got my dry kit, took me into a small room and got me changed, they were simply marvellous.
That was it, my race over. I hadn’t completed the POS, I had given it my best but obviously by best wasn’t good enough. I would like to say a very special thank you to Chris and Mick who were amazing company and it was a real privilege to run with them. James Adams thank you for thinking up such a wonderful idea and looking after us so well, your love for what you do is very infectious and you made each one of us feel special.
James Elson and James Adams put on two amazing events in terrible conditions but their first priority was always runners safety, this they did 100 per cent and help was always there when needed. To all the support crew, what can I say, a big hug and thank you to each and every one of you. It was lovely seeing the RD’s from other events in the UK there to support the W100 runners and us, very much appreciated.
I got home yesterday, saw HWMBO and promptly burst into tears, the emotions of the weekend just came flooding out. I know I made the right decision so can live with that, it was a tough race under very tough conditions, but one little bit of me is very disappointed, or perhaps I’m just feeling sorry for myself?
Would I do it again? YES no question, how would I change things? I don’t think I would change the way I prepared for the race, (although how do you train for this type of race!) My plan had always been to go at a steady pace as I wasn’t in a fit state to run fast, weather – you can’t change, but I was as prepared as I could be; my head space was good – so far as not knowing the distance was concerned; I didn’t like getting lost; navigation was a real issue, which I wasn’t expecting to be quite so hard, that made me feel frustrated, but dealt with the frustrations and the bad moments (usually deal with my bad moments by feeling quite tearful, then its gone, done and dusted). As for kit etc I had the best and enough – so more than happy. The ONLY bit of kit I didn’t have and would have liked was waterproof gloves! I’m not used to spending so long at CP’s but this wasn’t a normal race or normal conditions and under the circumstances would do the same again. If I’m having issues with myself I don’t talk but tend to be quiet until they are sorted in my head, then I’m fine.
There are always lessons to be learnt which will make me a stronger and better runner.
How long is a Piece of String?