Alan Bennett has taken on an incredible challenge in memory of his good friend Steve Williams, who was cared for by Hospice staff. Alan has not just run one 50 mile marathon (because that'd be too easy?!), he has run all FOUR of the Centurion Running 50 mile marathons in aid of the Hospice, completing the Grand Slam challenge! Below is his account of the final race:
The WW50 was to be the fourth and final event in the Grand Slam. Roughly 100 people had entered themselves as “Slammers” at the beginning of the year, and following the third race – the CW50 – there were just 47 left in the running. Such is the ferocious nature of this crazy sport and the cumulative impact that it has on the body. Leading up to the final race I don’t think that one Slammer was without some form of injury! And to that point, in the days leading up to the race another Slammer withdrew due to illness. So – just 46 left ….
The morning of the race was very cold and foggy – with the ground underfoot being wet and very slippery with all the leaf mulch from the trees, the tree roots and rocks. We all arrived around 6:30am to sign in to the race and watched the daylight gradually start to push through the slowly lifting fog. Just thankful that there was a person selling coffee!!!! The race HQ, a field at the top of the highest hill in the Chilterns, was the point that marked the beginning and end of the five laps. A lapped race comes with pros and cons. The pros are that you can access a drop-bag for additional kit or food, and to see your support crew and get a big psychological boost from them. I had the loudest and most enthusiastic support crew by far and they helped me more that you, or they, can possibly imagine!!!!! The cons of a lapped course is that, having been awe-struck by the severity of the first lap …. you know you have to face it all again another four times! Each lap was 10 miles, and had 2000 feet (and no, that is not a typo) of both ascent and descent. This gave a total of 10,000 feet across the race – more than was initially anticipated. Some of the climbs involved being hands-on (3 points of contact …). The effect on the legs (all muscle groups), the hips, back and shoulders was nothing short of brutal. As the laps progressed the number of runners dropping increased. A total of 20% withdrew from the race – that is the second highest attrition rate in Centurion Running’s history, and never before seen on a 50 mile event – and these races attract the truly hard-core from all around the country and beyond. The people running in these races simply are not those used to quitting. Every withdrawal was more or less forced on the athletes – too broken or exhausted to continue safely. I rescued back one runner on her third lap who was on the point of passing out at the top of the longest climb. Once I was satisfied she was good to go she ran in the rest of the lap on my heels. Once back at race HQ she took stock, and then made the very sensible decision to withdraw – the absolute right decision given the course, the conditions, and the state of her health at that time. It’s a real shame – she was a talented runner that had been going so well, but she just blew out the engines and that was her race over.
As for my race – I took the gamble of running the first lap hard and fast in order to bank time. I suffered badly for that decision on lap 2, and this caused a degree of concern in my support crew when they saw how bad I looked at the end of the lap. I decided to take time to try and eat, change of top, and then set out carefully on lap 3. I quickly recovered and put in a reasonable lap, although by the halfway point I was really feeling the pain – but I had completed 25 miles in 7 hours. That gave me a further 9 hours to complete the remaining 25 miles – easy I thought, and how wrong I was!
By the time I completed lap 3 the course was in total and absolute darkness – time to break out the head torch. I was feeling pretty sick by this point and really struggled to eat or drink much. I knew I needed to force food in, but it was a struggle. From the outset of lap 4 I knew I was in trouble – my hips and legs were shot, and running was reduced to speed marching and shuffling. I was existing purely on a mixture of coke and water and the occasional gel when I thought I could force one in and get it to stay in; in a constant battle against nausea! The lap took an age to complete and by this time there were not too many people left on course – there were only 170 starters in the first place, and what with the number of drops, it made for dark and lonely hours in a world of pain in those last two laps.
I completed lap 4 and was told by the organisers that I had 4 hours left on the clock (so 12 hours used already), and that I needed to be in and out of the aid station in five minutes! I grabbed what food I could, and put on as brave a face as possible for the support crew that included my wife and teenage son. I didn’t let on at that point that I had practically passed out on the lap and had ended up on my knees gasping for air. Some things a crew doesn’t need to know – they’d just worry …. Under any other circumstance I would have withdrawn from the race at that point, but I could not let the team and the challenge down. I am not adding this in for drama – just to paint the picture in the most accurate way.
I started lap 5 with another runner, but couldn’t hold their pace so quickly found myself on my own. By now every part of me hurt and was screaming for me to stop – but this is where the ultra-runner mentality kicks in, the mind literally overrides the body and you find a way to focus on moving forward and nothing else. It genuinely is an almost Zen-like state of mind. I made the aid station half-way round the lap with 2 hours remaining. The team there assessed me and deemed me ok to continue. The aid station crews are mostly made up of other ultra-runners and they can spot “the look”. They spurred me on and made sure I was going to keep going. Time was leeching away fast and for the first time ever my wife was becoming worried that I would “time-out” – i.e., run out of time and therefore not get an official finish. She knew I’d never give in – she knows how stubborn and determined I am, but the clock is something that none of us can control!!!!
About a mile or so from the finish I was found by a sweeper runner (one of the organizer team) who made sure I was ok and let me know I was so close and that I had enough time in the bank (just) as long as I kept moving. I was the last runner standing – the last person on course – and the fact that I was a Slammer meant that I had a lot of people at race HQ routing for me (including other runners who had just finished).
I eventually made it to within sight of the finish – I tried to run the last 50 meters but just had nothing left in the tanks – I was completely and utterly shot to pieces – totally exhausted. The cheers that went up were amazing, but nothing could help me find the energy for a final run. But I did it in a total time of 15 hours and 37 minutes. My final standing in the Grandslam table was 41st out of 43 finishers – as 3 Slammers had unfortunately dropped mid-race!