What a spectacular weekend with memories to last a lifetime. The Long Distance Walkers Association certainly know how to put on the best organised and supported events. Their annual Hundred is the flagship event that surpasses all the others, but 2012 climbed to another level altogether. This is why:
1. The route began in London, starting in Hackney and finishing in Windsor. This created the novelty of a Hundred closer to civilisation and through more urban terrain than is usual;
2. It started adjacent to the Olympic Park and passed many of the Olympic Games venues barely a month before the 2012 Olympic Games start in earnest;
3. It was the weekend of celebration of The Queen's Diamond Jubilee, so everywhere was in party mood with music, fireworks, flags and bunting-a-plenty;
4. The route passed the places where the LDWA was born;
5. This year is the 40th anniversary of the LDWA.
I'll add two personal milestones to that list:
6. This would be my tenth LDWA 100 started (hopefully also completed);
7. It would be my 150th ultra marathon.
The route took us from Hackney to Windsor via checkpoints at Millwall, Greenwich, Mottingham/Eltham, Farnborough/Orpington, Biggin Hill, Woldingham, Merstham/Redhill, Box Hill, Tanner's Hatch Youth Hostel, Holmbury St Mary, a wood near Peaslake, Chilworth, Clandon Park, Old Woking, Staple Hill/Albury Bottom, Sunningdale and Windsor Great Park.
Early on I teamed up with Brandon to share the intricate route-finding from the 42 pages of abbreviated yet necessarily detailed route description. We had been going at the same speed since the start so it made sense to team up. We enjoyed a dry Saturday that became warm and sunny but rain was forecast for later. We kept our fingers crossed that the inevitable would be delayed for as long as possible.
As it was The Queen's Diamond Jubilee, there were flags and decorations in all the villages. This seemed strange when usually we would only see such decoration on our checkpoints. It was great to see the party atmosphere but it did keep us on our toes.
This is not a checkpoint.
Trails down the hillside left by the first few participants.
As the day drew into the evening we heard many parties in the distance with bass booming. The rain finally began to make its first tentative appearances after 8pm as we arrived at checkpoint 7 (Merstham). The early darkness made way for a spectacular firework display to our left in the pouring rain as we climbed past the quarry and lime works before checkpoint 8 at Box Hill Village Hall.
I arrived at CP8 soaked and decided it was time to put some clothes on. While I did that the first 12 noon starters arrived. Geoff, Colin and Ian had made up 2 hours on us in a repeat of last year's Housman 100. We kept seeing them as far as the breakfast stop at CP10, after which they were too fast for us. Brandon and I continued to stick together though, which I appreciated because he had reconnoitred the night section.
The rain had been starting and stopping since 8pm. It wasn't raining when we arrived at CP9 (Tanner's Hatch YH, 57.1 miles) but as we sat and refuelled under the gazebo, heavy drops began to fall on the roof and intensify. We emerged into the deluge as the paths in the woods rapidly turned into streams and everything was awash. I feared it would be set in for the night but thankfully it had all but stopped by the time we reached CP10 (breakfast stop, 63.4 miles), by which time it had washed debris onto the roads and created floods. A fresh dry pair of socks and a sit-down meal of bacon, hash browns, tomatoes, baked beans and two slices of toast set me up perfectly to re-emerge into the darkness to begin the final 37 miles. It always felt cold upon emerging from a checkpoint but we soon warmed up (sometimes too much) once we got going.
Sunday dawned late and slow under heavy overcast conditions right down to ground level. Yes, the cloud seemed to extend to the ground as we were in constant fog. The air remained drizzly and the trees dropped their accumulating water onto us in bigger drops. Photograph-taking remained impossible with my camera safely inside my rucksack. I had expected much worse rain after seeing the forecast. An absence of wind as well made me think that we'd had a lucky escape.
We were both surprised at how lonely the event seemed to be, even with our jog-walk strategy, pauses to get the navigation right and longer pauses at the checkpoints to refuel properly. We were among the first ten to arrive at the checkpoints on Sunday. We had the undivided attention of the amazing marshals, who were still fresh and not yet frayed around the edges. Many of them remarked how long they had to wait for the first runners through after they had opened. We had been expecting to get overtaken as Sunday progressed but it didn't happen. The opposite seemed to be occurring; we were catching and overtaking others who had set off faster and faded more.
At one point on the first day as our route took us past the rusty sheds, I was studying my route description while walking when I suddenly trod on something and tripped over it as I tried to jump over the obstruction. When I turned around I saw what I thought was a dog, but someone later told me that is was a young fox, which figures. It was dead of course and baking nicely in the sun, which was still out at that point.
After the rain on the second day our shoes, which had begun to dry out a little, became soaked again as we dragged our feet through the soaking vegetation that overhung the many overgrown footpaths that were only 6 inches wide anyway. While we were running down one of these paths I suddenly noticed a movement just in front and stopped instantly to avoid stepping on whatever it was. A toad was walking ponderously up the path and stopped inches from my feet before realising that it may be in danger, when it jumped lazily to the left.
We picked up a third member to our team in the later miles as Megan joined us. We were all mostly in walk mode with the occasional pained jog, encouraging each other to put one foot in front of the other as best we could. All three of us had harboured the secret desire to beat 30-hour personal targets. Now that it was looking very likely we shared our secrets to make them secret no more. As we shuffled on together we began to realise that a sub-29 finish could even be on the cards. That enthused us no end. Our legs may have been complaining but we were not going to pass up such an opportunity easily. We hoped to stick together to the end.
The walk (mostly) through Windsor Great Park was a nice touch as our route wound in and out between the lakes, rhododendrons, trees and shrubs. It was a shame the air was so drizzly but at least it wasn't raining properly. As we approached the final checkpoint in the park, Megan advised us that there was a group of 4 closing on us from behind. NO! We can't get overtaken now. Not at this late stage. We abopted the jog-come-shuffle once again but she insisted that we carry on alone as there was no jog left in her legs. With a slightly heavy heart because I'd wanted all three of us to finish together, and with Megan's further insistence, Brandon and I jogged on to the final checkpoint. We checked our watches and realised that we had less than 1 hour to run the last 4 miles for a sub-28 finish. WHAT? Never in my wildest dreams. I wanted to give it my best shot.
I set off running up the incline towards the Copper Horse with Brandon close behind, when he told me to go for it alone because he did not think he could make that time. Oh no, not again. We'd done pretty well the whole event together and I wanted to finish together, but he insisted that I do my best to go for that sub-28. I paused, torn between loyalties but time was ticking. He insisted once again and I went, running up that hill to the top. Windsor Castle lurked far away in the murk at the other end of the Long Walk as I stood beside the Copper Horse. I wished my camera were accessible to take pictures of this place I'd never visited before.
I set off running down the hill and onto the never-ending drive to the white gates. Through the pedestrian gate I turned left and wasted minutes wondering why what I was seeing did not match the description, before realising that I'd missed a line in the description and needed to continue up to the main road before turning left. At the top I was met by a marshal who was getting increasingly damp in the thickening drizzle. He very kindly ran with me to show me the safe road crossing and point out the waymarking signs that led back to the school. I guessed I may have been getting privileged treatment with being among the first few participants he'd seen
I was running faster than I had done for the entire event on legs that felt curiously unfatigued. The running was flowing so effortlessly, dare I say fast, that it felt obscene for a plodder such as I to be flaunting such unfettered athleticism at the end of a 100 mile event. With one eye on my watch I searched in vain for the sign that would indicate the final right turn into the Trevelyan Middle School and figured that the turn would be obvious when I got there. It was and I turned. Once in the grounds I scanned for the finish sign but only saw an LDWA sign, so I ran to the next sign I could see. It pointed me to the showers. A bit premature under the circumstances, so I returned to the LDWA sign and opened the door tentatively. A round of applause picked up. I'd finished!
Brandon finished 11 minutes later and Megan 5 minutes after Brandon. Mutual congratulations flowed freely.
Even with the minor hiccups I got my sub-28, but it was a close shave. 27:58 was an LDWA 100 Personal Best and the icing on the cake for a weekend of milestone piled upon milestone. What memories, never to be repeated. I was sorry that we did not stick together to the end but Brandon reassured me that he was happier that I'd gone for it instead for the personal record. That got me quite emotional. Thanks Brandon.
I'd barely got myself comfortable before I was presented with my certificate and 10 Hundreds award. The chap sitting next to me was awarded with his 20 Hundreds award. I was impressed. It got me looking forward to the next ten years, which commence with the Camel-Teign Ivor's Dream 100 from the west to the east coast in May 2013.
I commenced my refuelling with tea, a can of beer (part of my Glossop Running Festival winnings, don't you know ;-), a chicken casserole dinner, a beef casserole dinner, three hot dogs, and more tea.
As Sunday afternoon moved into evening, the rain increased once again. A Jubilee party next door, which had been blaring us out with music all day provided us with an amazing firework display. Some of the evening finishers got to run the gauntlet of the falling hot debris to mark their momentous entrances through the doorway.
In the night as I slumbered in the hall and heard more outbreaks of rain hammering down onto the roof, I felt sorry for all the walkers still out there slogging their way through a second wet night, and a much colder one at that. The slower ones who have to go through two nights have it much tougher.
Footnote: an entrant flew across from Singapore especially to do this event as a qualifier for the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. I hope he went away impressed by the LDWA organisation, facilities, friendship, camaraderie - you name it, it's got it.
Here are the pictures I took, before and after rain.