The runners and volunteers at the inaugural Winter 100, endured torrid conditions for over 24 hours of the 30 hour event, but battled through to the bitter end, embodying the spirit of ultra running.
The format for the race was a series of out and backs utilising the Thames Path and Ridgeway National Trails. Streatley and Goring are uniquely situated on the confluence of both National Trails, offering up a course consisting of 4 different 25 mile out and back spurs, each covering a new section of trail.
During the preceding week, a huge amount of water fell on the South West, Wales and the Midlands, causing widespread flooding. On Friday afternoon, we arrived in the area to monitor the height and flow of the river Thames. The entire area was under flood alert, a status designed to get people ready to think about evacuating an area should the water continue to rise. Meeting with an environment agency representative in Benson on Friday evening, we were warned that according to calculations the river was still on the rise. We visited and ran a half a dozen sections of the course on the Friday evening and in all cases, the river was exceptionally high but still below the point of breaking its banks. We returned to HQ to set the Piece of String Fun Runners off (not along the Thames) and worked on contingency plans should the Thames Path become unsafe.
By 6am Saturday morning and despite no additional rain falling overnight, Benson Footbridge had been shut and the river had spilled it’s banks in numerous places. Perhaps worst of all was the section after Wallingford which had gone from above water to under at least 18 inches within the space of 8 hours. The principal danger with a flooded path is one’s inability to see where the path extends and where the riverbank lies. An easy miscalculation can see a runner take a step off of the bank and in to the fast moving, freezing cold river. The original course was simply too dangerous to run.
Our contingency plan was conveyed to the runners at the race briefing at 0930 on Saturday morning with the assurance that whatever happened during the day, a 100 mile race would still be held. All Thames Path legs would be abandoned, including a short stretch of the 3rd spur along the Ridgeway which also skirts the Thames and was under water. The new course would instead make two 14 mile out and backs to Wallingford via the Ridgeway, before runners would tackle the original 3rd spur twice, ending as before with the 4th spur still in tact. The total distance would grow to 102.5 miles.
Whilst the briefing was being held, course markers were busy covering the new route in time for the first runners coming through. Without their flexibility and hard work the race would have come undone early on. As planned, at 10am runners set off on their first 7 mile stretch to Wallingford. Early leader Anthony Low held a solid 8 minute mile pace and looked strong, hotly pursued by many of the pre-race favourites, Martin Bacon, Richie Cunningham and Terrence Zengerink. Perhaps the only surprise was that 6th place overall was being held by Jean Beaumont the lead lady. By the time the runners returned to Streatley at mile 14, Martin Bacon had taken the lead, which he held almost until the return to Streatley at mile 28. By that point Richie Cunningham had edged in front and wouldn’t relinquish that advantage at any point from then onwards.
Richie is one of the finest ultrarunners in the UK. He has an incredible pedigree behind him having twice won the West Highland Way Race a true classic of the UK calendar. He runs for Team Pearl Izumi and has raced all over the world with great success. He does it all with an unassuming attitude, a fine racing strategy and a kind word for every other runner out on course. With the new course layout, runners from the front to the back were passing each other throughout the race and encouraged each other equally throughout.
The rain had begun just before the start of the race and became heavier at certain points throughout the day. Out on to spur 2 and 3, both eastbound legs on the Ridgeway, the Grims Ditch & ploughed field sections became torrid, muddy and extremely hard going. As the day wore on, runners began to drop under the intense mental and physical strain of the race. 14 hours of darkness with heavy winds and rain lay ahead, conditions that many found simply too much.
Richie, however, remained unphased. His pacing was almost metronomic as he powered out on to the 4th spur along the Ridgeway, 77 miles in and with just 12 hours 20 on the clock. The race behind had changed shape numerous times. Nick Weston, 3rd place at this years SDW100, began to show his sub 10hr Ironman class as the day wore on and battled his way in to 2nd. At one point he looked to be gaining on Richie but made only a few minutes back in to a lead that was already over 40 minutes strong. In the end Richie was able to stretch home in a finishing time of 17:14:10, a phenomenal effort given the horrendous conditions. Nick followed home in 18:01:17, a super performance, with Martin taking his second Centurion 100 3rd place of the year in 19:04:39.
The ladies race had looked fairly open before the event, however there was one name I had been unfamiliar with prior to the start. Jean Beaumont dominated things from the get go. Similar to Richie she worked hard all day, leading from wire to wire and powered through to an overall time of 20:23:46. Wendy Shaw looked cool, calm and totally prepared throughout the race bagging her third sub 24hr 100 mile finish of the year and taking home 2nd place in 22:58:25. She worked all the way to the line to break the 23hr barrier. Third lady was held by the battling Mary Heald until the cold just became too much and she unfortunately had to drop late in to the race at Bury Downs, with 17 miles left to go. That left the door open for Nichola Newton who ran in a smiling 27:39:28.
5 runners began the day hoping to become the first group to take home the enormous Grand Slam buckle, awarded to those finishing all 4 Centurion 100 milers within a calendar year. Having each finished the TP100, SDW100 & NDW100, David Bird, Allan Rumbles, Tremayne Cowdry, Ken Fancett and Andy Miles all toes the startline looking fresh and ready to get the job done. Unfortunately, the conditions that took a massive toll on the other entrants, also hit the Slammers just as hard. David Bird was forced to pull out of the race at Swyncombe but showed what an incredible person he is by taking it in his stride and wishing all of the other guys the best on their own attempts. The remaining 4 seemed to have an air about them for much of the race, perhaps a quiet knowing smile that comes with experience. They each looked totally in control of their own destinies and ready to take a break, sitting back on the achievement of a lifetime. Ken made it home first. As per our previous interview with him, at 62 he dominated the slam from the start of the year eventually finishing all 4 races under 23 hrs. His total time for the 4 events a little over 86 hours. Allan came home next, breaking 24 hrs for the third time this year, his total time at 95:32 for the 4. Tremayne ‘Dill’ Cowdry came next, struggling with achilles problems since the NDW100 he made this one look easy, getting stronger throughout the year. He came in with 26:30 on the clock for a total time of 101:38. Finally, Andy Miles who it seemed hasn’t stopped smiling all year again did things at his own pace, enjoyed the whole experience and came in with 28:21 on the clock for a total time of a little over 111 hours. These 4 guys became pioneers and there will be almost 5 times that number taking on the challenge in 2013.
The stories at the front bely the stories at the back. As is always the case, 100 mile races are equally as much about those who fight for up to 30 hours to get the job done. This race was no exception.
Having toiled through 75 miles of rain, freezing cold and treacherous mud, the elements had one final battle to throw at the runners – the wind. As the night wore on, the wind grew and to a phenomenal level out on the Ridgeway. The aid station at Swyncombe was totally destroyed in the wind, leaving volunteers operating from vehicles where they not only continued to feed and tend to runners, recording times and communicating with HQ, but maintained the supply of hot drinks to the tired and cold runners. Nothing more could ever be asked of a group of volunteers.
At Bury Downs (mile 83/92), it simply became impossible to tie anything to the ground. Instead, we parked one of the crew trucks on the ridge and operated our aid station from the back of it, bringing runners up and out of the wind and in to shelter in an otherwise totally exposed section of path. A temporary additional aid station was added by willing volunteers through the night between Streatley and Bury, and at the furthest point on the course, Chain Hill, a previously wind sheltered check point experienced a change in wind speed and direction which destroyed the shelters there. Again, a crew van was relocated to that site to act as a sheltered checkpoint for the runners. All in all the very spirit of the UK ultrarunning community came out in force to maintain the safety of the runners and allow them to fulfil their dreams of running 100 miles in one go. Nothing more could have been asked of any one out on the course and as a result, no single runner experienced cold related illnesses that required treatment during the race.
Finally, as the dark lifted around 7am, so the rain and wind began to depart leaving clear blue skies and beautiful welcome sunshine. The runners out on the course pushed on to the finish one by one and were welcomed home with open arms. Scott Brockmeier finished his 24th 100 miler of 2012, his first in the UK with the preceding 23 having been run in the US.
The final runner, Spenser Lane, had departed out on to Spur 4 with just 10 minutes to spare under the cut offs. At Bury Downs mile 83 his margin had reduced to 3 minutes. He held that same margin through mile 87.5, 91.7 and eventually made it home in a total time of 29:56:50, 3 minutes and 10 seconds under the cut and making it the closest final finisher to the 30 hour cut off we have yet had at one of our events.
Spenser crossed the line in 31st place from a starting field of 75, for a finishing rate of just 41%. Despite their being only 3800 feet of climb in the entire course, the conditions had taken a huge toll on the field.
This was a true Winter 100. It would have been impossible to hold the event safely without the incredible work of the 50 volunteers. I would like to thank each and every one of them for their efforts across race weekend.