Nick T’s Thames Path 100 – Diary of a pacer

I’d been worried about Nick’s 100 mile run for a while and felt a big responsibility to him. Nick had tried to run the North Downs Way 100 mile race (NDW100) last year and was timed out at the 60 mile mark. I paced for him that day as well and I really didn’t want to go through the same feelings. You go back through absolutely everything and agonise about the things that you should have done differently. “Should I have been more forceful with him? Should have I have been with him at the start? Should have I crewed for him over the early part of the race too?”  With hindsight, the answer was probably “Yes” to all of them.  Having said all that, I still enjoyed the NDW100 and the experience from that run translated into the preparations for his Thames Path 100 (TP100) run and for when he gives the NDW100 another crack later this year.  You know, people who attempt a 100 miler and have to drop out shouldn’t feel bad. Both I and Nick learnt a massive amount from the NDW100 experience. It was simply a means to a different end.

My build up to the TP100 didn’t start well. I’d had a long week at work, so ended up having a few too many beers on the train down. On top of that, when I arrived at my Brother in Laws flat, he’d invited a touring choir from New York to a party at his house. Some of the group were staying in a narrowboat on the canal, so I end up spending the night before the TP100 rowing down the canal in a row boat ferrying people about and then drifting off to sleep with Michael Jackson’s Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough blasting out.

Last year I met Nick at the 50 mile mark and we ran from there. This year, I wanted to crew the whole thing as well as be a pacer. I just seemed right to do the whole thing together from start to whatever the finish would be.  See Glossary for “crew” and “pacer”.

Nick’s family are great and were wonderful on the day for lifting his spirits and getting his food/drink to the aid stations, but I do think you need someone who’s a runner as well. Someone who knows what you’re going through, can read your body language, make sure you’re eating/drinking enough, not running too quickly/slowly, staying positive, staying rational.

So I found Nick in Richmond at the registration, faffing around with his kit, taking things out and putting them back again for no reason. After a bit of planning and chit chat we went for what would be the first of about 20 coffees over the two days. We chatted to a few runners including a great Welsh lad who told us a story about how he’d missed the start of the Rotterdam Marathon this year because he’d eaten a “spacecake” and ended up stoned in a Dutch hospital for two days. His wife left him there, ran the marathon and picked him up afterwards! I gave him no chance of finishing the TP100.

Me and Nick went back to the registration to write down the emergency medics and race directors numbers, unfortunately, both of which we’d come to need during the run.

After that, we went to find ‎Fiona McNelis, who’d agreed to give me a lift to the next aid station. One of the things that people have told me about ultra running is how nice everyone is, how much they care about each other and how much they look out for each other. Fiona was the epitome of this. She gave me and Nick so much support and advice over the two days. At both ultras I’ve ran so far, I’ve met people that I think I’ll stay in touch with for the rest of my life.

It was nearly 10am now and time to see Nick off. It’s so inspiring to see a group of runners set off on their mission knowing that they’re going to be running for 24 plus hours. Usual advice was given, big hugs shared and he was off. A sea of heads and dayglow bobbing up and down.

As a thank you for the lift, I’d offered to help run the second aid station that Fiona was setting up. If you ever get the chance to work on an aid station for an ultra, especially a long ultra, I’d recommend it. You learn so much about long runs. Your main goal is to get the runners in and out in better shape than they arrive and safe to continue. You’ll see blisters, injuries, tears and drop outs but you’ll also see adulation, humour and joy. The best lesson I learnt working at the aid station was how to get them in and out as quickly as possible.

You can waste so much time at an aid station. The pacers/crews job goes something like this……Sit your runner down, take off his pack and fill up his water, get them food and start them eating it. Look them over, if they’re looking well, tell them. If they’re looking bad, talk to them, find out what’s wrong and then either reassure them or fix the problem if you can. Then get them out.

Nick burnt about 20,000 calories on his run; here are just the things I saw him eat….

Peanut butter, jam, ham, cheese and combos of all 4 in sandwiches and wraps, chilli & rice, soup, sausage rolls, peanuts, mars bars, cookies, bananas, banana cake, oranges, melon, apricots, jelly babies, soft mints, polo mints (post vomit) and double espresso, tropical, strawberry and orange energy gels.

He drank coffee with 3 sugars at each aid station, water with electrolyte tablets in, flat coke and beetroot juice.

Nick didn’t get cramp once during the run. A good food and hydration plan is really important.

Nick came into the aid station at 22 miles looking hot.  The weather was warmer than everyone had expected and he’d emptied his water pack (2 litres). Generally he was fine though, although I was worried that he’d set off too fast. Nick’s wife and daughter arrived and we then spent the rest of the day following him and other runners we’d befriended, round from aid station to aid station.

One of Nick’s initial aims was to get to Oxford in less than 24 hours and claim the extra prize of running 100 miles in a day (plus a different belt buckle that celebrated the fact). By the time he got into Henley it was just before 9pm and it was getting dark, he’d done the 1st 50 miles in 11 hours and still had about ½ an hour to spend at the aid station getting changed into night running clothes, re-fuelling and checking out his feet etc. By the time we got out of the aid station it was 9:30pm at least. We’d need to run the last 50 miles in 12 ½ hours. Things weren’t looking good.

To brighten the mood, I produced a playlist, messages and iPod with double headphones that I’d brought along, with tracks that the whole of Meltham AC (Mine and Nick’s running club) had secretly selected for him. This brought about the first of many tears that day! It was a real lift for him and he was genuinely really touched.

If I’m honest, I can’t really remember a lot of the order of what then took place over the course of the night and I’ve gone on a lot already, so I’m not going to give a aid station to aid station account but I will tell you this, it was one of the longest nights of my life!

We met Paul Ali at Reading, which was great. He organised the “Run till you drop” mission earlier in the year, so it was nice to chat to him briefly about that (he’s going to do it again but with a km option as well as miles, so I’m sure I can do that…..)

As we went from aid station to aid station, Nick became gradually worse; his feet we getting blistered.  At Reading I’d spent some time draining off the fluid using a safety pin from his race number. He’d also begun to feel sick and nearly threw up all over the aid station.

Nick spent much of the remainder of his race going through the follow spiral. Feeling low as he needed to eat and was worried about the cut off time, eating but then feeling sick and tired as his body processed the food as we ran/walked, feeling stronger and more positive after to food kicked in and the back to feeling low and the start of the cycle.

You just have to keep talking to your runner and reminding him where he is in this cycle, when the next stop is coming, how good he’s doing and so. “It’s only…..miles to ….. and then you can have a hot cup of coffee and some food”. “You’re only feeling like this because……”. “The sun will be up in…..hours”.

We talked a lot, rather I talked at Nick. I talked and talked and talked.

Positive and rational conversations are very important I feel. We met a lot of runners though the night, two in particular, one young lad and one lad with a beard (Who we called beardy weirdy, for no other reason than he had a beard), who had ran on their own for too long and had become very negative. Both were struggling with blister and knee problems. However, after just talking to them for a bit and putting their problems into context, they both seemed to perk up.

However, the next problem we encountered was much more serious. Half way between two aid stations we can across two men lying on the ground. One runner was leaning over the other putting a foil blanket over him.

The runner explained he’d just come round the corner and found this man on track. He fallen runner was obviously shaking with cold. Although it was a mildish might, if you stop running and lay on a muddy path, you’re going to get very cold very quickly.

I took all my spare kit out of my bag, Meltham AC beanie on his head, spare long leaved top over him, another foil blanket tucked round him, got his head off the cold floor and then tried to get some honey down him. This lad wasn’t having any of it, so I had to feed him honey with my finger like feeding a baby. Eventually he ate all the honey and seemed to perk up a little bit. We gave the healthy runner the race director’s number and he called ahead as we ran on to speak to the medics who were apparently on the way. We found them a little further down the track, filled them in on what his situation was and then carried on.

We found out later that the lad was fine in the end and that he’d just not eaten or drank enough but it shuck us up at them time and made us appreciate even more, that this wasn’t something to be taken lightly. On a lighter note, I do wonder if he woke up in the morning with a Meltham AC 10k hat on his head and thought…hmmmm that looks like a good race.

Even before this medical incident, we were starting to worry about the time. The 24 hour target had gone and we were in serious danger of missing the cut off and being taken out of the race. Each aid station seemed to take longer and longer to get to.  We just set ourselves targets to be ticked off…2 hours till the sun comes up, 30 miles to go, we’re into the 20’s now. The only trouble we had really was when Nick ran head first straight into a tree that had blown across the path. I picked him up and checked to see how much blood there was but his head torch seemed to take much of the blow.

The sun coming up was a real boost, as was the dawn chorus before and for a while, it seemed like we we’re going to make it with loads of time to spare. I joked beforehand that the last 5 miles would be like skipping down the yellow brick road, Nick as the tin man and me as the cowardly lion. How wrong I was.

We had really started to slow down, Nick had started to be sick and I patted his back as I watched a brown coffee/energy gel solution pour out of him. He needed proper food. Out of all the stages, the stretch from the aid station at 85 miles to the one at 91 was by far the longest and darkest in terms of mood and outlook. Nick’s feet were really bad now and we we’re really slowing down, at this pace we would have been timed out. Foot management is so important, almost as important as what you eat and drink.  Although we were up against the clock, Nick still had the sense to insist that we stop at the 85 mile aid station and get his feet looked at by the medic. The medic peeled off his socks and got to work draining blisters and taping up the ones that were shredded, while I continued to feed and water him.

Nick asked how his feet looked? I lied and told him they looked great. In truth, they were absolutely destroyed! He had a massive flap of skin hanging off that looked like you’d just been to the butcher and asked for a slice of gammon!

For the next 6 miles we hobbled though field after field of wet grass, following a man and a girl wearing a tutu, who by now was nicknamed Desmond. Another nickname we developed was “A Harry”, which we used for when we we’re going to start jogging again.

Finally we made it to the aid station at the 91 mile mark. Nick was meeting his wife again for the first since the night before. By this point Nick was almost gone. He sat in a chair and sobbed. You get so strung out and emotional, especially with the time pressure. I think just seeing Anne and his daughter sent him over the edge. We fed and watered him as quickly as possible and went to leave. One of the aid station ladies literally dragged him out of his chair and told him to “bloody well finish this thing!”

I think seeing Anne did the trick and Nick picked up, by this point I was having trouble keeping up with him, unbelievably Nick was speeding up. We got to the last aid station with other two hours to beat the cut off point. Ian Walker, another great help along the route and someone else who I’m sure I’ll keep in touch with, fed us both and sent us on our way.

I’m ashamed and also a little proud to say, at this point I was absolutely on my knees. The whole two days had been exhausting. I realised at the last aid station that I’d not sat down since I met Nick 45 mile back down the road.  When you’re running a big race together, it’s important to make the tough decisions before hand and not when you’re in the thick of it as you might make a decision in haste, under pressure and with little reasoned judgement.

We’d agreed earlier, that if for some reason, I was injured or couldn’t keep up, Nick would carry on without me.  So that was it, we gave each other a nod, I told him how strong he was looking and what we’d agreed and he was off.  I never saw Nick finish his 100 miler, running through the finish line, crying in his wife’s arms or receiving his buckle.

The last 5 miles took me nearly 2 hours to walk back. It was perfect really, the sun was warm and I just watched and chatted to runner who came past. The Spacecake Welshie, Beardy Weirdy and the young lad with the bad feet all came past. I was that far gone by this point I cried when I saw each one of them.

Nick was an absolute star throughout and is mentally very strong. Nick gained 29 places in the last 50 miles and never moaned once even though he went though some really low spots.

I should mention all the people who organise this event and volunteer on the aid stations, who are absolute selfless stars. This run was one of the most positive and fulfilling things I’ve ever done in my life and I’ll remember it forever. Well done to Nick again and thank you to his family, friends and everyone at Meltham AC for helping him get there. I’ll be amazed if anyone is still reading this, apart from my wife who I’ve asked to proof read it. Caroline, thank so much for giving up your and the kids time so I can go and play with my friends. I love you so much.

Glossary

Pacer

A “pacer” in the ultramarathon world is someone who runs with you during your ultramarathon race. He or she is there to give support in all kinds of different forms. Typically pacer support for runners in ultramarthoning starts at the 50 mile distance and up.

Crew

A “crew” is defined as a person or persons, usually family and/or friends, who drive from aid station to aid station to give support to you as a runner. They can carry your gear, food, and anything else you may need in their vehicle during the course of the race.

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