In 2012, torrential rains leading up to the race, wiped out half of the Thames Path and part of the Ridgeway sections of our course. This year the course received little rain in the fortnight before, and was largely dry, mud free and as fast as anyone could have hoped come race day.
In the pre-race preview, I singled Ed Catmur and Sharon Law out as the two favourites, both with long race pedigrees behind them. Ed in particular we knew could do something special on the right day, having blitzed the NDW100 in 15:44 for the win back in August and I’d adjusted our aid station opening times down for a 14:30 finish to allow for that possibility. It turned out to be just enough, for the first 10 hours….
90 runners toed the line and the first out and back to Little Wittenham north on the Thames Path and back to HQ was run at an insane pace. Ed made the run out (12 miles) in 1:24 and returned to us in 2:51 for sub 7 minute miling or 12 hour pace. As scary and unsustainable as that was he looked fresh. He also clearly didn’t care that he was running too fast. He was prepared to put himself on the line this day, something very few are brave enough to do at a 100 mile trail race.
Dave Ross came in 5 minutes later working harder, employing his usual all out approach. The first 25 runners or over a quarter of the field came in under 9 minute miling for that stretch and I tried to get some to calm down a little for fear of utter carnage later on. The conditions were absolutely perfect, 8 degrees, low sun, flat and dry, but somehow it didn’t seem likely that we’d have 25 sub 15 hour finishers. In the ladies race Charlotte Black down from the Shetland Islands looked comfortable in at 3:25 and up 9 minutes on Scottish 24hr record holder Sharon Law.
Out on to leg 2 up the Ridgeway to Swyncombe and back, the notorious Grims Ditch and some small rollers affected times for most, apart from Ed. In the mens race, he rocketed back to HQ reaching mile 50 in 6:30 on the dot. A time that most could only dream of for 50 miles and he genuinely didn’t have a bead of sweat on him. Too often it’s said of a front runner that they weren’t even trying but he wasn’t even trying. His lead by this point was 37 minutes over Matt Winn Smith who again looked supremely comfortable.
Ed’s strategy was clear. He had run a flawless 100 at the NDW100 and he was only interested in one thing, going as fast as he could over the distance knowing that if he failed, he failed. Too often, elite level runners drop out when finishing at below their target time or anticipated position don’t materialise when a day doesn’t go 100% to plan. In a 100 mile trail race, things are likely to derail slightly at some point and Ed took that gamble as do all eventual champions/ record breakers.
He motored on through the 100km mark in 8:38 and it was then that he began to come unstuck. Stomach issues which have plagued him before kicked in and he began to slow a little on the return to HQ at mile 75. With 10:45 on the clock it looked like sub 15 was out of reach but It takes massive guts and determination to run a 100 mile race with everything you’ve got, come up short and still take a win. I went out on to the course at mile 85 to see him and he was doubling over every so often with stomach problems, yet still holding a 10 minute mile pace. Ed is one tough dude. Although Matt Winn Smith made a huge dent in to his lead and at one point closed the gap to under 30 minutes, Ed is not a man who caves easy and he actually pulled back time during the final 12 miles to take the win in 16:04.
After he had finished shivering and convulsing on the floor a little as he does at every race, we chatted about his strategy and performance. He shrugged his shoulders and said ‘yep I went for it and it didn’t happen today, but it will next year’. I’m sure it will. With him entered in to the Grand Slam it is going to make for fascinating viewing.
Behind him, Matt Winn Smith ran a totally different race, consistent, controlled and comfortable, he picked up 2nd in 16:39 with a 9:59 average mile pace. 3rd went to Barry Miller who wins my award for most improved runner in 2013. Incredibly he was also a Grand Slammer who had a huge gap to make up on the 2 ahead of him in that overall race. He didn’t do enough to claw it all back but has shown huge potential for the future and huge heart to go with it.
In the ladies race, Sharon shadowed Charlotte Black for the first 50 miles, sitting anywhere from 8 to 15 minutes back. One benefit of the course format is that the out and backs allow runners to get accurate splits on the competition in front or behind. It’s also a source of huge encouragement and morale boosting as runners meet each other regularly on the trail. Sharon nipped in to the lead which was a minute at mile 75 and stretched her legs in the final 25 to record an 18:44 to win and crack the top 10 overall. Charlotte came in with a 19:51, followed in third by Grand Slammer Wendy Shaw in 20:51. Wendy has now podiumed at the last 5 Centurion 100 mile races. Consistent doesn’t come close to describing it. With plenty more to come from her those podiums may turn to wins.
In 2012 we set off 75 runners and welcomed 32 home in total. This year with 90 starters, we had 40 sub 24hr efforts and 69 finishers for a finish rate of 77%.
Amongst the 90 starters were 9 Grand Slam hopefuls and all 9 made it home again within the 30 hour cut off. In the end, Mark Fox secured the best cumulative time across the 4 x 100s and holds the new Centurion Grand Slam record of 83:32:17. Wendy Shaw took the ladies and 2nd overall with 85:56:32 and third was Barry Miller in 86:38:31. 9th finisher was the incredible Ann Bath in 117:27:03. She may have only had a scant 2 hours and 33 minutes to spare cumulatively over the 4 races, but I’d challenge that at 64, hers will be an Age Group Record that will stand for many years to come.
As the crew at HQ awaited the arrival of runners under the 30 hour cut, we began to get concerned that Jerry Smallwood, our final runner and stalwart of the UK ultrarunning community/ sweeper extraordinaire, would slip by the 30 hour limit with an agonisingly small margin. Dick Kearn steeled himself with a beer, everyone held their breath and to enormous relief, Jerry carried himself over the line in 29:56 allowing that crucial average 2 seconds per mile gap between an official finish and fastest ever non-official finish. He took home the rubber chicken as his prize but also the hearts of everyone at HQ there to witness it.
It’s been a wonderful year at our events and I feel incredibly blessed to be part of the community spirit that the volunteers and runners create at our races. With an exciting year ahead next year we’ll be preparing to go even better and look forward to many more records and epic performances from first to last as always.
An annual review will follow including our own selections for performances and runners of the year so stay tuned to the blog.