Centurion Running is a very special company. If you can call it company. Essentially that’s what it is, but what they have achieved in terms of a community is really quite special. Anyone lucky enough to have participated at one of their races will vouch for the genuinely incredible sense of camaraderie and team spirit that exists. James Elson, the Race Director, and a very accomplished ultra-runner in his own right, has built a phenomenal series of races that offer not just fantastic courses with organization that is second to none, but a terrific brand with a huge community of passionate and dedicated runners. All of whom are often referred to as the ‘Centurion family’. It sounds clichéd, but there really is no more appropriate phrase to describe it.
This was to be my second event with Centurion. Having already completed the North Downs Way 100 last year in 2015. But this was the inaugural running of the Chiltern Wonderland. A course devised by both James and Drew Sheffield.
With two decent ‘warm-up’ races, The Grim Reaper 40 and The Hangman Ultra, where I I’d come first and 4th respectively, I was looking forward to a strong performance and excited about racing what would no doubt be a much more competitive field. I’d planned to try and run an average pace of 8.45m/miles with the aim of coming in at around 7hrs 30mins. I felt my fitness was there, and if the weather was cool, I should be able to continue eating and providing my body with the fuel it needed.
As we left the start I made the decision to run the first ten miles or so with Edwina Sutton. Though she didn’t know this. She was very much the ladies’ favourite, and a very good runner. I have thought a lot about my pacing this year, and always been impressed by the almost metronomic approach that is taken by the likes of Edwina, Debbie Martin-Consani and Cat Simpson. The ladies, in my view are far smarter at racing than us men. We tend to almost without exception go out far too hard in the front half and then pay the price for the remainder of the race, as we gradually slow down. Perhaps there were others who’d taken the same approach, as we had a little train of about six runners for the first seventeen miles or so.
I felt really good between Tokers Green (10m) and Bix (17m), and decided to push the pace a little, leaving the comfort of the group I had been running with for a couple of hours. I hadn’t realised I was already as high up the field as eleven, but I had consciously held back and attempted to follow what had proven to be a smarter and more successful racing strategy in 2017.
By the time we’d reached Ibstone, I had clawed back another place and was sitting in tenth still feeling very strong and with a desire to keep pushing myself. But by about mile thirty-three I had started to feel the effects of picking up the pace. My legs were beginning to ache a little and my energy and enthusiasm for the race were begin to wane just a little, which is when I caught up with Alex Whearity.
After exchanging the obligatory pleasantries, we ran together for a several miles seemingly both enjoying the company of another runner and the distraction of the odd brief exchange of words. Then, at about mile thirty-five Alex suggested we pace each other and push it to the finish. I could hardly decline. Aside from being a little rude and ungrateful for the company, I would be essentially admitting I didn’t have the desire to test myself and see what I could achieve. So off we went.
The section to the next aid station at Grim’s Ditch was about 5 miles long and almost entirely down hill. Alex set the pace and I kept close enough to keep him pushing it. It was racing at its best. Close, fast and frenzied and I was loving every minute. I think we must have covered that section of the race faster than anyone else that day. I fact, I picked up the crown for the Strava segment, which was unexpected, given the eventual winner of the race, Jon Ellis, finished more than an hour ahead of me. But as I said, we were really flying at this point.
We gained three more places and after a brief stop at the final aid station made the final push for Goring. It was all hard running from there, but for allowing ourselves a couple of short walking breaks on the steeper sections. As you might imagine, there were lots of paranoid looks over the shoulder as we feared for anyone who was gaining ground at a faster rate than ourselves.
Alex and I maintained a steady pace, continuing to exchange the odd word here and there, but by now the course and the hours on our feet were beginning to take their toll. Actually, I find myself eyeing up Alex’s Hoka’s in envy on more than one occasion. I’d opted for some Nike Wildhorses, which are light and comfortable, but the cushioning starts to fade as the miles wear away.
With the final stretch ahead of us, we entered a wood at about mile 47 and caught a fleeting glimpse of the runner ahead of us, who we knew was in sixth place. This was genuinely the closest I’ve come to feeling like a hunter whilst running. Alex and I said nothing but we both knew the plan. He was about two hundred metres ahead and running well, but we put our heads down and ran as hard as we could. But also as quietly as we could. We wanted to be as close behind him as we could possibly get when he finally realised we were coming. And more than that, we wanted to be travelling at such a pace that he wouldn’t even think about trying to pick up the pace.
It was at this point that my watch died, but we picked up the pace to sub 7 minute miles and when the runner finally heard us coming we had already gone past. In fact, he later asked us what on earth we were doing, and how long we’d been running for when we met him at the finish.
Alex kept the pressure up and decided to go for it until the finish. And whilst I tried to hang on as we tore through the streets of Goring running sub 6 minute miles, he eventually took the win. Of our little race anyway. His time was 7.32.52 and I was just twelve seconds behind.
I finished in sixth. Not as high as my previous two races, but I was certainly pleased with the result given the more competitive field.