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The 'Almost' Grand Slam

This time last year there was a WhatsApp chat between Anna, Daz and David about races for 2022.

David fired up the chat by saying 'Why don't we all do the Centurion 100 Mile Slam' (all four of their main 100 mile races in a calendar year)

Now here is the important bit!

Anna is the type of person who goes 'Great I've signed up'

David is the type of person to 'Go make a cup of tea and forget what he just said'

Daz is the type of person to 'Gently observe the other two muppets'

So Anna goes 'Hang-on - I've just signed up for 4 races and you two have signed up for none'. So Daz (quite rightly) realising that David's cup-of-tea manoeuvre is a stalling tactic gets the ball rolling by signing us both up for South Downs 100.

Anna realising that she is completely in a league of her own is now contemplating how to master all four 100 milers in a year in which she knows she is going to have to undertake major surgery several times.

Fast Forward to early 2022 and the dreaded Covid is still real. Camino have over six athletes lined up for the first 100 Miler - the Thames Path. We have over 20 community helping with cars, crewing and pacing and we see the Race Review profile listing Anna as 'one of the favourites to watch'.

Anna contacts us and says 'Just done an LFT and it's positive'

NO!!!!!! You can't have a Grand Slam and miss the first race. At this point you have to put yourselves in Anna's shoes and think what it really means to contemplate running 3 out of 4 events. If you are going to do well in a 100 miler then you should just focus on that one event. Not many runners are going to average two hundred milers in a season and peak for the third.

Fast forward again and Anna comes a brilliant 11th in South Downs Way and then an unbelievable 2nd at the tough North Downs Way - Read about it here.

Just last week Anna took on the last of her mini Grand Slam x Autumn 100

We are so proud of Anna for completing these three tough 100s - a true Camino Legend. Our WhatsApp group was over-flowing with Anna-Love x

So how did Anna get on at A100.....over to Anna.

PS pics from Anna, Stu Marsh (official Centurion photographer) and the wonderful Pierre

So for this one I was coming in with a 10 week window since NDW100. In a normal year that would be loads of time for recovery and rebuild, but with more surgery planned soon after the last race I was down to 5 weeks training including taper. I am pretty pleased with what I squeezed in in that time even with a few set backs with wound healing but I think I forgot how little prep time I’d had when I stood on the start line!

This race is different to the other 100 milers I’d done as rather than being point to point it’s set out as 4 spurs from Goring out and back. Spur 1 and 4 are on the Thames path (North then South) and spur 2 and 3 are on the Ridgeway (East then West). It’s a tricky one psychologically as everything you run out you know you have to run back. You are also seeing people who are ahead of you (and how far) every time you are on an out spur.

The first spur is notorious for people going out too fast as it’s flat and I knew this so had a pace plan for what I considered a sensible easy pace - the only problem was it didn’t feel easy! Everything felt weak and heavy and by 20 miles I’d hit the wall and started walking and feeling very sorry for myself. I was eating well and drinking loads, if just wasn’t working. I sent out some pathetic messages to my sisters and Camino family and got some wonderful messages back and a pep talk from my pacer Kall.

I kept walking/jogging it out as I was nearly back at Goring. I wanted to stop and didn’t believe for a second I could physically drag myself around another 75 miles but I’d decided to give spur 2 a go as I could still do that in the daylight even if mainly walking and then I’d see how I felt at 50 miles. Spur 2 started out just as bad if not worse than spur 1. I’d eaten loads and changed my shoes (I’d warmed up on spur 1 in road shoes due to a slightly delicate feeling Achilles).

The first 10k or so was still mainly flat with a few very gradual inclines but I was still struggling and consumed by negativity. I’m always quite self-critical but this was a whole new level of self loathing and feelings of failure - it was a dark place. I walked a lot in between short jogs and after about 5 miles made it to the check point at North Stoke. I went inside, sat down and cried. How was I in this state at not quite 50k? I knew all the tricks, I know ultras can go in waves and you can feel better after a while, but I’d been in the pit of despair for 20k already and the wave hadn’t passed.. the crew at the aid station were so lovely - they pointed out all the positives (I was still doing well on time and was way ahead of any cut offs) and they suggested various run/walk strategies I could go for. Most importantly they told me ‘It will get better!’. After a much longer than should be necessary break, I set off again towards Swyncombe, which was the end of the spur and another 8 miles away. This is where the Ridgeway section really started and the hills started to come in. I tried to follow the advice and run for a set number of minutes then walk, and gradually as the hills provided natural run/walk sections I found a rhythm. I still wasn’t feeling amazing, but I was enjoying the change in scenery and was moving at a similar pace to some other people so didn’t feel as totally alone as I had been feeling. I passed through some lovely fields that I remember well from Race to the Stones last year - I could barely recognise how I felt now with how amazing I’d felt then flying down through the wheat. Still - I was moving better than earlier and feeling OK. I reached the turn point and was able to have a reviving cup of tea (maybe this just proves the power of tea!) and after a quick snack I turned and headed back towards Goring. There was a monster uphill coming (which I had just come down) but I knew now that that was the worst hill in the whole race, having recced the rest of the course previously. So I put my hands on my thighs, and started forcing myself up it. I couldn’t complain, after all, it wasn’t NDW which was riddled with steep climbs like this! At the top, I had the joy of a lot of lovely runnable downhills including the lovely field - and amazingly, I felt a lot more like I had in RTTS so things were looking up. The return leg was uneventful other than me bursting into the North Stoke aid station and practically yelling at the crew ‘you were right - it got better!’ with a huge smile on my face! I am so grateful for how that team helped turn my race around. Through a combination of run/walk I got back to Goring in decent time. It’s a good thing I was feeling more positive now as what came next was not a nice prospect if you were feeling low. 25 miles out and back to Chain Hill on the Ridgeway on my own, leaving at sunset and into a headwind. I put on a long sleeved top and my brand new body torch. One of my biggest problems at NDW was that I didn’t feel I got enough light from a head torch and I struggled with flat light on chalk meaning I walked more than I should have. I knew this part of the Ridgeway and know it has plenty of rocks and pebbles to kick or turn your ankle on as well as variable grassy/muddy tracks which can be hazardous in the dark for someone as clumsy as me! After some re-fuelling I was off and heading out onto the rapidly waning light. I managed about half an hour before I had to get my head torch out and turn myself full Ironman with my body torch.

The difference to my night running was incredible - absolute game changer! There is a lot of climbing out towards Chain Hill but none of it is really steep so although I walked a fair amount of the ups, I also intermittently jogged them which meant with a good paced hike in between I was overtaking people. This gave me a boost as even though I’d long since given up on placing anywhere in this race, it felt like progress. I ploughed on. Some of the grassy bits were such a joy to run on after the pounding on rock, tarmac and hard packed gravel trails. I came into East Ilsley Down check point feeling good. They had the most incredible array of home baked goods here! I normally don’t eat that much sweet food by this stage in an ultra but I gobbled down a mars bar crispy cake and it was delicious! There was a bit of an incline on hard road coming out of the CP so I walked out still munching.

Then for the final 10k out to Chain Hill (also the 100k point) from where I’d be on the home straight to Goring where I would be meeting my pacer Kall for the final 25 miles - I was so looking forward to some company after such a bleak,dark spur on my own. I had given up listening to anything hours ago as it hadn’t been helping today but I couldn’t help but have Kate Bush’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ going round my head every time the wind picked up!

I kept hearing my phone ping with messages which was really lovely and on my walk breaks I’d read some of them for a boost. It was getting better! I counted down the KM back to Goring almost like I was coming into the finish - just the small matter of a 25 mile out and back to Reading to deal with now. I’d got through the tough spur in reasonable time and pretty good spirits but was desperate for some company. I didn’t really know Kall before this so had been so grateful he had stepped in to pace me at the last minute when my regular pacer Amanda had come down with Covid that week.

When I turned up he was ready to go and I was keen to get going so after some food and sorting myself out we were off. The final spur is a funny one, it’s mainly flat but with a couple of rogue hills thrown in, one of which is quite early on. I was surprised how precarious it felt compared with recce’ing in the light as there is quite a sharp drop off to the side which you can’t see down and with slightly wobbly legs 75 miles in and in the dark I had to concentrate not to go too near the edge. My legs felt fine for the stage of the race (infinitely better than the train wreck which was me trying to get up any hill after Detling on the NDW) so that was reassuring. Kall was great, keeping me running in between my frequently requested walk breaks and chatting away and opening all the gates (so many gates!). We got to Pangbourne check point after only 4.5 miles but as well as not really needing anything, the fact it was upstairs was enough incentive to by pass it and keep going. Reading was the goal - then it was just the return spur.

It did seem to take a long time to get there - we bypassed the infamous ‘Welcome to Reading’ sign which I knew meant we had at least 5 miles to go to get there. But strangely I didn’t feel the despair I know is common at this point and actually felt fine! On we went, finally getting to the part of Reading I do know quite well having raced out of Reading rowing club on many occasions. Unfortunately I didn’t know how much past the rowing club the turn point was and it turned out the answer was quite! Finally it was in sight and we were told we could enter via the steps or the ramp - I chose steps which was both a sign my legs were fine but also that I wanted to minimise unnecessary distance!

As we stepped inside I saw a lady collapsed on the floor in the doorway which was quite concerning. She was awake though and being looked after but I felt so sad for her as it looked like her race was over and she was so close to the finish. I was starting to lose the ability to eat much but with some regular encouragement/bullying from Kall was taking on some fuel at least. He got me some tea and we set off on the return leg. My body torch had sadly died although it had done its job on the tougher terrain so it didn’t matter so much. My main head torch was also starting to fail too now though (I still had a back up but not as bright) but luckily Kall had batteries and managed go sort it out so I could see again. I’d never had to run this long in the dark before so hadn’t tested out the life span of my head torch - that was an error and I felt pretty stupid!

I knew now I would finish, but there was just that little bit of motivation to still try and get as good a time as possible. We’d had a few messages about how I was climbing positions and I’d seen a few women I’d overtaken but at some point a message came through that I was in 5th. I was absolutely amazed and was very happy with that - especially after how the day started!

I’d seen how far ahead the leaders were on every spur (so pleased to see Debbie fly past in the lead on this spur!) but the gap to 4th seemed insurmountable so even when I heard Melissa was about 1km ahead I didn’t even think about it being a possibility - she had looked so strong all day. I was calculating times based on average speed so was just trying my best to keep it under 20 hours but I thought it would be tight. Kall would pick out markers for me to run to before I could walk which helped and occasionally I could keep going past them a little further. Gradually the distance ticked down and we got to Pangbourne - again though - no desire to go in! There was just 4.5 miles to go and I had just over an hour to meet my (new) sub 20 target. We were back in the hills going through the woods but I knew after this it was flat to the finish. Going down the Hartley steps was agony and I could feel both Achilles really struggling quite suddenly which was concerning as they’d been fine on downhills previously. Luckily the twinging subsided once I was back on normal undulating terrain and I could keep my slow jog going with a slightly shorter stride length to reduce pain.

Then we turned a corner and there was Melissa. There was still 3k to go and I knew I couldn’t run it flat out but I gave it a good go! We passed her and I kept running for much further than I had in one go for some hours. I took a few glances behind but couldn’t work out whether we’d pulled away due to a few other people with head torches also being nearby. I pushed on with everything I had left and was just willing the bridge to appear but it seemed to take ages to get to it. Finally it was there and we turned the corner for the final few metres to the village hall. It was done! My sister Claire was there to pick me up and it was so lovely to see her after my first non-crewed 100 miler. we sat in the hall for a while with others in various states of brokenness. There was a lady debating whether to head out for the final spur - I felt so bad for her but was so happy to hear later she had done it and finished within cut off! I was also so happy to see Tamsin arrive (the lady who had collapsed at Reading). I could not believe she had kept going and come home with the V50 age group win - now that is resilience!

I can’t quite believe how the day had turned around - it just shows that a lot of things can seem to go wrong in a race, but when you’ve got a 100 miles to play with all is not lost!

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