The Autumn 100 - My ultra comeback

So, let me tell you what was supposed to happen....

Do you remember this guy?

nic t 1.jpg

Of course you do. This chap played "Nicky Platt" in Coronation Street in the 90s. He was a 15-year-old gawky teenage boy playing a 15-year-old gawky teenage boy. Seems sensible. However, the makers of Coronation Street were keen to get ahead in the ratings. East-Enders were killing people off fortnightly, Emmerdale Farm dropped the sheep-shearing for some post office robberies and in Brookside; well, Anna Friel started kissing other girls.

They had their work cut out, so they decided to "Send Nicky to France"; on a school trip or exchange programme or something. Well, all that riding a bike with a baguette in the basket and eating cheese in a beret must have done some good as he came back three months later looking like this.

nic 2.jpg

This was my plan. This last three years was essentially me "going to France" and when I returned I was going to be ripped like buggery, Salomon flasks bursting under the pressure of my substantial pecs, quads that would fell any trees that had the temerity to intervene on my path and a six-pack so rippled it would grate my emergency poncho into ribbons.

Well, I'm not writing this from high up a podium, am I? Instead, I am having to paper over the cracks of a run that didn't go like a dream with a garbled stream of shit jokes.

So yeah, essentially I'm just picking up where I left off.

OK, so divert your mind from Adam's bullet nipples let's get this thing started proper.

My name is (The) James Adams. You may remember me from such tales as " 50 states of brown" and "The Spartathlon - before it was cool". I used to be seen jogging about in the nights and often instead helping to clear surplus checkpoint food at races. One day before I was about to set out on a 500k run across Tennessee in the US my wife called me to tell me she was pregnant, with twins. I can't help but feel I was partially responsible for this.

I finished that race, almost losing my nuts in the process but since I didn't need them again, that wasn't a problem. That was in July 2015. I took a 3-year break from running ultra marathons to observe these little people increase in mass and learn the words that I pretend I don't ever say.

I managed to get some running done at that time though. I went back to basics. I trained for a half-marathon and then trained for a couple of marathons. I think my compressed time worked a treat here. No longer did I have 6 hours a day to go chump about in some fields, but every now and then I got an hour where I'd shoot out the door and run as many miles as I could.

I got PB's at everything. 5k, 18.43, 10k, 38.40, Half - 1.25.50 and marathon 3.06.58. For my second marathon earlier this year I genuinely believe I got myself into "3-hour marathon" shape. I loved the training, the tempo runs, intervals, Tuesday night twenties, recovery runs and all that jazz. All I needed to do was to get the three hours and then I could relax and go back to chumping about in the fields. Marathon day came, it was 30c. #brutal in ultra speak. Despite the sweltering conditions I only just missed my three-hour target. By 49 minutes.

But enough was enough. I had an itch that needed to be scratched. I was so inspired by those Instagram "trail porn" shots that I longed to do a run once more where I could run a bit, set up a camera, run back, run past it, run back, run past it, run back, run past it, run back, run almost up to it but then accidentally squint so have to run back, run past it again and then run back and take the camera. That's the running I love.

I signed up for the Autumn 100, part of Vivaldi's "four ultras" series. A route of 4 out and backs along the river Thames and ridgeway footpaths from Goring. Simple but ingenious. As Vivaldi, himself would say "If it ain't Baroque don't fix it."

Do we still say “smashing it”? - Stuart Marsh photo

Do we still say “smashing it”? - Stuart Marsh photo

It's been a while since I've done something called "kit check". I've been doing the "bag of essential things" drill quite regularly in the last 2 years though. Nappies, muslins, bottles, wipes, muslins, snacks, waterproof pants, muslins and then anything I've forgotten can be made up of muslins. I figured the same could be done here. I stuff things like lights, bottles, food and clothes into a bag and about 37 buffs. If I forget something like batteries or gloves, I can just make it up out of a combination of buffs.

I had my three items checked, light, fleece top and waterproof. Lucky my phone wasn't checked, requirements are for "fully charged" and it was only 97%. I had to Instagram myself catching a train.

I think the last time I did a Centurion race I missed the briefing because I was doing a parkrun. He updated on the weather which was that it was going to feel like summer when it was light and winter when it was dark.

We went for a long walk into some bushes and then off we went, a bit narrow at the start, so we all had a chance to chat.

I set out nice and easy like you do in these things, you don't set out like you are trying to twonk a parkrun. The first leg had actually felt hot and bothersome. It was only about 23C [not sure what the blog weather inflation rate is nowadays] - It was a #BRUTAL 37C, and my secondary light source evaporated.

I haven't missed checkpoint food. I don't mean that in a bad way, I literally have not missed it because the spread on a checkpoint is exactly the same as at a kids 1st or 2nd birthday party. The only difference is that they have GU gels instead of Pombear. The first one was 10k in, and I snaffled a few ham sandwiches and crisps before peeling away to look for my children.

Onwards and alongwards to the turnaround point, but before that, I got to see the leaders heading back the other way. It's a really great race for that. Saying "Hello, Hello, Hello, Hello, How the F**K are you ahead of me? Hello" for a good few minutes.

I had a nice chat with Wendy Shaw/Whearity on the way. That's another thing, people changing their names doesn't help with me trying to remember everything. I went on ahead but knowing Wendy is an infinitely better pacer than me I guessed I'd see her again.

Leg 1 finish - 3.49 - 35th

Leg 2 -

I was a little concerned about the vert in this bit (are we still calling it "vert"?) I went up norf a while back and ran up a hill with some others. They were saying things like "my local fell is Shephards Atoll" and "My local fell is Ninky Nook". I live in Bedford, my local fell is an access ramp into Lidl.

Thanks Graham Carter for the photo!

Thanks Graham Carter for the photo!

I walked with some sandwiches down an alleyway and then onto the Ridgeway path. I have run all of these paths at some point but do not remember anything except for eery flashbacks, such as now when I recall getting a van stuck against a wall. This part of the trail was wonderful, and it was probably good that this was done in the daylight as it was a bit bobbly (or are we still calling it "technical"?)

I passed Jon F at this point, he was on the phone as we exchanged "well done"'s, but I saw the look in his face. It was that "I've just run a marathon and now I really can't be arsed" face. Maybe he just wasn't ready for this kind of vert after living in Chamonix for a year.

The first checkpoint was only 4 miles in and I met Graham Carter for the first time (thanks for this excellent photo!) I also remembered my cup which I forgot on the first leg (Hope the RD isn't reading this and DQs me). A quick chat to him and the team, a few ham sandwiches and then off to the turnaround.

Each leg is about 25 miles, two legs are broken down into 4 quarters, so about 6/6/6/6 or so. Two of the legs are broken down into 4/8/8/4. You'd think that mentally tough ultra runners would not break stride at this. You'd think.

I didn't see anyone else really until the leaders came back. Soon after they passed me I was on going up and up, up through the fields that Stuart March uses to take amazing photos.

Stuart Marsh Photo

Stuart Marsh Photo

I thought I made pretty good time getting to the turnaround point. Now I was pleased it was downhill all the way to Goring, except there still seemed to be loads of uphill.

I had a punchy target here. I wanted to qualify for the Spartathlon (16.40) which about 9 months ago I thought I'd be able to do here. But inevitably training didn't go perfectly but was still thinking something like 18 hours was possible.

I wanted to get to half-way in not much over 8 hours. My one and only long run in training was running 50 miles in 8 hours. I got to halfway in about 8.20.

I changed my shoes, I'd been wearing Sportiva Helios which are delightful for knocking out 7-minute miles on the trails around home but not so comfortable for shuffling along at lower speeds. I put on some Hokas. I may have said nasty things about these shoes in a previous life, but nowadays I'm all for throwing money at stuff to make it easier. I am actually writing this blog in Grammarly which lights up red every time I write something shit.

Leg 2 finish - 8.28 - 24th

Now it was getting dark. When I first decided to do this, I thought I'd get most of it done in the daylight. But I didn't realise that the start was 10am, and I forgot that October is closer to December than it is to June. As soon as I left Goring for the third time it was dark, I headed up the main road then off onto the Ridgeway again for another bit of up and down.

Here I got chatting to a chap called Alex, he was doing both the 100 and 50-mile grand slams this year.

There comes a particular sweet spot in a race where someone is going to have to suffer your whole life story. This was that time (sorry Alex!). I felt miles 50-60 really quite comfortable and made a few places. The past was really easy to follow, like a trail dual carriageway. The first CP was great to see and seem to come quite quickly.

That said it is always tricky to know whether the van up ahead was a checkpoint or people dogging. Would I get an eyeful or a ham sandwich? Or both?

The checkpoint on the top of chain hill was wonderfully lit up. I was now drinking coffee instead of coke at the cps. Now at each CP I was walking out and drinking coffee.

In my head, I thought the down would be much more comfortable than the up, and I should be back at the CP in great time. It didn't work out that way though. I started to feel a bit crap and then get annoyed that things weren't like they were "in my day", such as the non-existence of retina-burning 9 million lumin head torches. I found that uncomfortable. I thought everyone had those fancy ones you program into a computer that calm the fuck down when near some other light source? Anyhoo, I was probably just annoyed that I was slowing down now and it looked like I wasn't going to win.

Eventually, I got back down into Goring. It was just gone midnight. I faffed in the CP a bit, having some food and

Leg 3 - 14.41 - 28th (Didn't get legged)

So I headed out on the 4th bit, to Reading and back. This was the business end of the race, literally as you run to a business park and back. I was pleased that DNFing didn't cross my mind. Gemma had the kids on her own all weekend, so I felt like I got the easier part of the deal here. Despite pretty poor sleep in the run-up to this race I didn't feel additionally tired. So no sleep monsters or DNF demons rattling around. Perfect. Time to get out there and bash this out.

Ahhhh f**k my legs had stopped working.

It's OK, legs are a minor detail. Just walk a bit, visualise that scene from Forrest Gump where he runs off his braces and just get into it.

That wasn't before I had to cower under a bridge to put my rain jacket on. It was raining quite a bit (are we still calling that "biblical", or maybe "Quoranical"?) It was looking like a grim trip to Reading. And then Reading.

It isn't long before you get to a sign that says "Welcome to Reading". This is an in-joke, like London Stanstead airport. It's fucking miles away. The meadows part was quite fun, the paths were a bit slippy, but the sky looked like it was opening up and the rain abating.

After the sign to Reading, I was on the river path which was mostly familiar to me. Reading just goes on and on. This was a test of my mental resolve which has improved considerably since earlier in the year when I tripped over a pinecone and then told it to fuck off. I just wanted the turnaround to come and thinking it must be around the next corner. I got passed by someone who said it's at least 2 miles away. 2 miles! Shit. It's not the distance but more the realisation that your internal GPS has just gone all numberwang.

I didn't wear a GPS for the race, I asked for advice on a facebook group about what watch was best, and people kept saying Casio or tailwind. I had a tracker on me courtesy of racedirector so I could put it on my strava later. I did have my cheap Garmin FR35 (I think) which only lasts about 10 hours when you switch it on, but it does just guess your miles anyway. It told me at 75 miles I had done 95. Totally counts! Then I thought about all those 0.4 mile walks to the chip shop and wondered "is it really only 0.3 miles?" All those trips I've eaten a battered sausage too many because I thought I was walking longer. Perhaps that's why I look like Nicky 1 and not Nicky 2.

Anyway, yes I made it to the CP, which was upstairs and had a balcony. Would have been pretty romantic if it didn't point at Reading. By this point, in all honesty, I just lost arsed. Couldn't be arsed doing it anymore. I couldn't DNF because it was 4 in the morning and I was in Reading. I just lost the heart to try hard anymore.

So I started to walk and thought I should be able to keep a good walking pace going, and if people start streaming past me I'll start running again, unfortunately, no one overtook me for a few miles, and by then my maximal leg spread was on par with an arthritic nun and I just could not get going anymore.

It was a long old plod, and I did not enjoy those meadows again. Meadow after meadow (not like that beautiful one in the field, but muddy ones in the dark. In Reading). I thought I had done them, I thought they were over, but then over a little bridge and this.


pangbourne meadow.jpg

I was really hoping to get this race finished before the sun came up. Back into the Whitchurch CP 4 miles from the end, my back seized. This is actually a lovely bit of the course (if I could see it). Sharp hills and nice trail, like in leg 2. I wasn't having much fun on it, and now I was getting overtaken a lot. I lost all idea of a time now and was just hoping to get to the finish in time to faff a bit and get on a train out there.

The sun did catch me, but it wasn't making much of an effort. More people zoomed past with that "I can smell the finish" spur.

I finished, 21.50 or so, 41th place.

OK, I made that sound a bit more grumbly at the end. Despite a couple of sense of humour failures around Reading, I was in good spirits for the entire race. I lost my target but was really happy to be back. I didn't really know how much I missed this and was so glad I didn't postpone again.


I remember a few years back James Elson mooting the idea of putting on some 100-mile races. He spoke of his desire to bring a bit of the "big time trail racing" atmosphere from the US to the UK. I said, "Nah mate, go to New Mexico and shit yourself then write a book about it, that's what the people want".

Well anyway, he did his thing, and I did mine. Now I'm not going to humblebrag about how many books I've sold, even by rounding it down to the nearest million, but I think we can agree that James has done pretty well here.

These events are stunningly good. If you enter a 100-mile race, you will get a brilliantly organised and well catered 100-mile race. Hang around a bit more, and you get sucked into the most amazing of communities. It's infectious. There was a buzz like a school reunion, only this was with people you actually like.

So that's 3000 words for my first ultra blog in 3 years. I'll try harder next time!