Some three and a half years ago I happened to bump into Louise Ayling at the inaugural King’s Lynn parkrun. Conversation turned to “how many different parkruns have you done?” – I was smug about my five different ones until Louise told me she’d done forty six and thus my parkrun tourism started (at time of writing I’ve done 86 different ones and Louise has 130 different!) We’ve stayed friends ever since, meeting up occasionally at parkruns and memorably at the Rutland Water marathon where Louise and Rachel struggled round in appalling conditions and I sprang up at various points on the course with encouragement and a camera!
I have watched her burgeoning ultra career with much interest and was mortified when she had to pull out of the Thames Path 100 earlier this year with a dodgy knee at 85 miles. Despite being offered the near certainty of verbal abuse and a sleepless night I had not one seconds hesitation when Louise messaged me to ask if I’d be interested in crewing for her at the Centurion Winter 100. It was thus that I found myself at the house of Louise and her lovely husband Andy the night before the adventure was to begin.
I’d arrived very frustrated and bad tempered having realised that I’d left my wallet at home when I was as far as Peterborough on the way down. This involved retracing my steps home and hitting all the school chucking out traffic in Boston which in turn meant that I was two hours later than intended and hit the London rush hour traffic too – doh! A soothing cup of tea and a wonderful home made vegetarian pizza by Andy the chef calmed me down again. Despite listening to a podcast that said you should never leave your race planning to the last minute, Louise and I sat down to plan where we would meet up along the route and what I was to carry etc.
A 5.30 alarm call, shower, cup of tea, toast, load the car and away was the start of Saturday. I dropped Louise and her kit off at race headquarters which was the village hall in Goring and then headed off to take part in the inaugural Harcourt Hill parkrun. I was a little unsure of this as it felt like I was abandoning her before we’d even started but Louise was most insistent saying that her race didn’t start until 10 o’clock and she was with her “Centurion family”! Having been introduced to her coach and the boss of Centurion Running, the very personable James Elson, I set off for Oxford. Harcourt Hill parkrun is set in the campus of Oxford Brookes University, is two laps of the playing field, all on grass with very little in the way of elevation apart from a few grassy hummocks. Parking is plentiful and free but make sure to collect a token for the barrier on the way out. Coffee and cake are available at a reasonable price in the foyer of the swimming pool/sports hall and there are also free shower and changing facilities. The core team are very welcoming and friendly and it was nice to cross paths again with some regular tourists but I didn’t stay long as I was itching to get back to the main business of the weekend.
So it was off to Wallingford and aid station number one. There are four out and back legs to this race and I was amazed to see the leader (not stopping) on his back leg before most of the field had made their out visit! Louise duly arrived looking fresh as a daisy (her exact words were “I’m in my running Goddess phase”), we swapped water bottles and she selected some of her pre-prepared 100 calorie bags from the back of my car and she was off again.
My soul intention throughout this epic was to be wherever and whenever Louise wanted me and to give her whatever she wanted along with much verbal encouragement. Thus my next stop was at the Kingfisher Inn in Shillingford where I met her at both the 9 and 16 mile point, (there being an aid station at Little Wittenham but one with no crew access) and on both occasions Louise was going well. Again a change of bottles and a few 100 calorie bags but with the added excitement this time of a few spoonfuls of hummus – yum, yum! Then she was off again with a spring in her step, by now I was starting to feel a bit of a fraud, my encouragement wasn’t needed and my fully equipped field hospital was left untouched! So it was back to headquarters in Goring for the 25 mile mark where a change of clothes was the order of the day but she was rapidly ready and on her way again for leg number two to Swyncombe and back.
There being no crew access at either North Stoke or Swyncombe (but where Louise would see a friendly face in the form of Alma) our next two meeting places were Mongewell and the Holy Trinity church (in case divine intervention was needed!) at Nuffield where I met Louise both outbound and inbound. It amazed me then and still does how well Louise looked and was going for at this point she was still ahead of schedule for a sub 24 hour finish. Our paths next crossed at the Goring headquarters and the half way mark of the race where Louise underwent another change of clothing and partook of a mug-shot soup and some food before heading back out into what was now full on dark leaving behind quite a few runners who looked a lot more secondhand than she did!
I forgot to say that Louise had asked me to tweet on a regular basis so that her family and friends could check on her progress. This I did and was surprised at the massive response from well wishers which I passed on but then I decided to put a couple of pictures on Facebook for those without a twitter account and nothing could have prepared me for the amazing response both in the messages and the number of “likes”! I think it’s fairly safe to say that she’s fairly well thought of as not even the cutest of cute sheep pictures that I have posted has ever come close to getting this sort of response – you all rock by the way!
Our next meeting point was to be Post Box Cottage which gave me the most trouble to find but we did meet up and a change of water bottles and some more 100 calorie bags and she was on her way again. the next time we were to meet was the Bury Downs aid station – now I’m sure that in broad daylight on a nice day it is truly beautiful, set as it is on the top of the downs but at 11.30 at night in the wind and the driving rain it didn’t have quite the allure it might have done! It was livened up though by a marshal in full chicken costume and the playing of much bird inspired music! Runners were turning up looking slightly the worse for wear but the marshals were brilliant giving them sustenance and encouragement before kicking them out of the gazebo into the wind and rain again.
Louise duly arrived but I could tell that things were starting to get a little more taxing though she drank some tea and ate some rice pudding before heading off again. We had planned to meet up twice at the entertainingly named Scutchamer Knob and once at Chain Hill aid station but Louise insisted that I was to stay at Bury Downs and get some sleep. I tried, I really tried but I suspect I was too hyped up as I lay there listening to the conversations going on in the aid station and eventually gave up trying and went to stand in the aid station to give encouragement and wait for Louise’s return. At 1.40 she arrived, to quote the Rolling Stones “a little bleary, worse for wear and tear” but still going and that was all that mattered! Having removed a safety pin from her pack which had been chafing for ages and nibbling a bit of food from the tables she was off again. We agreed to skip Post Box Cottage and meet back in Goring which was, to quote Louise “all down hill from here”!
I arrived at Goring just after two o’clock, parked on a quiet back street, set the alarm for 3.15 and this time I did sleep. I was up in plenty of time to cheer in (quietly so as not to wake the residents!) a few runners before Louise arrived and though it was the 75 mile mark Louise was still jogging and wearing a winsome smile! I could be wrong but it seemed to me that this was her lowest ebb, I rather felt like I was dancing on egg shells as she’d fallen behind her goal of a sub 24 hour finish but a change of clothes and another cuppa soup and she was on her way once more.
Crew were not allowed at the Whitchurch aid station and Louise decided that where we had agreed to meet was too soon after this so our next rendezvous was to be on Skerritt Way in the middle of a housing estate on the way into Reading. This was to be my lowest point for, much as I tried not to, I fell asleep only to be woken by Louise helping herself from the back of my car; she rightly admonished me for falling asleep and I felt a proper pillock! It was also at this point that she had stopped eating though she assured me she was taking food on board at the aid stations but I was concerned that her body would run out of fuel before the end.
So with just a change of water bottles she was off again to the Reading aid station and final turn around point at Wokingham Waterside Centre at eighty seven and a half miles. On arrival I was astonished to see that the competitors had to haul themselves up a large flight of steps to get there! When Louise arrived she assured me that it was much better than last time she was here for at least this time she could bend her knees! Louise, whilst still only nibbling at the food on offer, actually seemed a little brighter than the last time we had met and so with a cheery wave and a spring in her step (I lie!) she set off for our next meeting point.
Which was once again on Skerritt Way but this time I managed to stay awake. I think it safe to say, despite what I might have said earlier that this was Louise’s lowest ebb, she took no drink, no food and stated that she was going to “death march it in from here”. We had previously arranged that our next meeting point would be the Ferryboat Inn at Whitchurch but she banned me from there saying that if I was there she’s sure she would be inclined to drop! Yeah right! Like I’m going to let you drop with just 4.7 miles to go, I’d have eaten the car keys first! I watched her stride off into the distance with a distinct lump in my throat – she’s going to make it, she’s really going to make it!
So straight back to headquarters at Goring for me where I spent a very happy hour and a half cheering in the finishers and chatting to the marshals and supporters then, lo and behold, Louise hove into view! An incredible cheer and round of applause greeted her arrival and James Elson greeted her with an enormous hug followed by the coveted belt buckle and tee shirt – a truly magnificent achievement. Louise is far too modest to point this out but her are the figures – she finished in 25hrs 4 mins 44secs coming 53rd out of 95 finishers which looks even better when compared to the 152 persons who started!
A change into more comfortable clothes, lots of hugs and catch-ups with marshals and friends followed before it was time to head home. Andy and I left her on the sofa whilst we unloaded the car and by the time we got back in she was fast asleep!
I could easily become very gushing here but this has to rank as one of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen, Not only for the sheer force of will that kept her going when her body was saying “that’s enough please!” but also for the amount of planning that Louise put into this venture. Nothing left to chance and a photographic memory, she knew every stopping place and all the timings whereas I was struggling and I had the sheet of paper with the schedule on it!
I’m so incredibly pleased she did it, Centurion Running and ultra runners in general are wonderful people – I enjoyed every minute of my weekend and am both pleased and proud to have been a small part of it!
LOUISE AYLING – 100 MILER – I SALUTE YOU!