North Downs Way 100 miler

Last year I had applied for the Ultra Trail Mont Blanc, but unfortunately as this is such an oversubscribed event I was one of the unlucky ones to not get a place. Fortunately though I had scanned around the race calendar to see if there was a suitable replacement and had spotted a new race, the North Downs Way 100which was too be the inaugural race for a new setup called Centurion Running. James Elson was the Race Director, and had completed some classic US 100 milers and was aiming to model the NDW100 on the US races. i.e. Well marked, well stocked aid stations and most importantly, a belt buckle for those completing in below 24hrs.

I hadn’t really targeted this race, it was more a stepping stone to the Spartathlon. This was funny when I realised that I was looking at a 100 mile trail race not as a main target. How the confidence grows and the targets change! A couple years previously, a 100 miler would have been a major target that I would have prepared for over a fair amount of time. Now, it was a big race (100 milers will never not be big!), but there was a confidence that never existed before. I knew, barring a serious incident, that I would complete it, it was more a case of how quick!
How quick could I do this in? I wasn’t too sure really. I really wanted to beat 24hrs for the buckle, but beyond that I really wasn’t sure. On paper I reckoned I could go sub 20, but for some reason this seemed too quick, so I plumped with sub 22hrs. My year had been pretty good so far, but I had eased off the pressure a little lately so was unsure of my form. It was only when there was a week to go before the race that I started to really think about it. I was pretty excited and I was beginning to to realise that I wanted to have a good race for a final little boost before Spartathlon.
On the Friday after I had finished work, I picked up my kit which seemed pretty sparse, and rushed down to the train station to catch the trains to Farnham. I had organised to meet Claire Shelley at the station who would been in her car and would drive to the hotel where we were to share a room. I had met Claire at a few races, namely the Grand Union Canal Racewhere she stormed it with a fantastic 3rd place. She was supposed to be running, but due to injury she was doing the next best thing, crewing! After a little bit of poor route finding, we eventually found our hotel. We checked in and went straight down to get something to eat. We had a nice but overpriced meal a good chat, then went back up to the room. I did my usual ultra faff around sorting my kit out for a swift exit in the morning, had a quick shower then got into bed for a better than usual pre-race sleep.

The first of three of Claire’s alarms went off at around 4:30. I got up and ate a couple bowls of muesli. I grabbed my kit and we went down to the car before making the not as scenic route back to the school which was being used as the race HQ. We met some familiar faces in there and milled around for a bit waiting for the briefing. We learnt at the briefing that the course was dry and in good condition. It would be fine to wear road shoes. I was wearing a brand new pair of unknown shoes I’d bought that week. They were a pair of Saucony Peregrines. Pretty low profile, lightweight shoes with pretty decent tread. They felt really comfortable, so I was happy to give them their maiden voyage on a 100 miler. Not the first time I’ve done it either, and it was fine then! I’m constantly experimenting with shoes. I never expect to find the perfect shoe, but I like to try different things, and I’m a bit of a magpie with new, flashy shoes!
After the briefing, we all started off on the short walk to the start of the trail. We lined up at the start, I got pretty close to the front, and in 10 minutes or so we were off. I wasn’t unprepared, but I certainly seemed to have prepared less than most that I spoke to. I had barely even researched the trail, and I hadn’t organised any drop bags for the cp’s. As previously mentioned, the course was supposed to be really well marked, and the supplies at the cp’s were supposed to be good so I was relying on that, traveling light and stress free. I like to run as clutter free as possible these days. I was carrying a few 9 bars, and Elete salt solution to add to my water to keep my electolyte levels at a healthy level during the race.
On the day there was to be a marathon, which would start later on in the day, and a 50 miler which had started at the same time as the 100 milers. It was a out-and-back course, so for the first 50 miles the 100 milers would have the company of the 50 milers, but when they would reach the cp at the 50 mile point, the 50 would leave the 100′s to complete the course alone and going into the night.
I initially was running with Mark Collinson, who I discovered five weeks previously had won the South Downs Way race, a 103 miler in 19hrs 42 mins! An impressive time, and even though he thought that he wouldn’t be able to perform at a similar level five weeks later, I was convinced that if you have the condition to run a sub 20hr 100 miler, then you certainly have the ability to recover really well within five weeks. We were chatting a fair bit, as we passed through the first cp, and realised that we were going a decent pace, maybe a tad too quick, but it felt good, so I stuck with it. There were only around 5 runners ahead, but I had no idea whether they were 50 or 100 milers. When we arrived at the next cp, I grabbed some gels, drank some water and ran off as soon as possible. I noticed that Mark was still at the cp as I ran off. I was now with a few other runners which I discovered were all 50 milers. I soon discovered that my pace was similar to one of the 50 mile guys, who I soon learnt was called George. We chatted a fair amount about all sorts and retained a fair pace which I was happy about. I’d half decided that I wanted to go off a little faster than normal and running with George seemed about the right pace. As we dropped down through Denbies wine estate, George pointed out a hill in the distance and informed me that it was Box hill. I was looking forward to climbing up Box hill as it was the only real climb on the whole course. Not to say that the course was flat as there was around 3000 metres of ascent. Not big climbs, but pretty lumpy to say the least.
We both reached the cp at the bottom of Box Hill where I loaded up on some cheese and ham wraps, topped up my water and packed a few more gels into my bag. The cp crew told me that I was the first 100 miler to come through. I was really surprised, but moved on with George pretty sharpish and tried to forget the fact that I was in the lead. After crossing over the river using the stepping stones, we soon hit the base of the climb. It was pretty steep, and stepped. It was really pretty warm now, and as soon as I started working so much harder, the sweat was pouring out of me. I seemed to be keeping on top of my fluids again, but there was a long way to go so I had to stay alert and keep taking sips from my bladder. I kept feeling drip down the back of my legs throughout the day, I kept mistakenly worrying that this was my Camelbak bladder leaking, but it was just the sweat pouring off of me! Soon enough, we were finished with Box Hill and were running through some more amazing singletrack through the woods. I was feeling pretty good still, but was aware that the pace was still pretty hot. I was intrigued to see how my body would cope with this slight change in tactics. Had I overdone it? Only time will tell! If I had, it would be a very slow and painful end to my race, though I suppose all hundreds are pretty painful!
The day was warming up more and more, but fortunately we were largely under tree cover. I was starting to fantasize about cold drinks and sitting down to eat a Burger King. This pretty much always happens during races now. Why I long for a Burger King and nothing else I have no idea, but it is a pretty consistent race craving.
All was going well as George and I ploughed on. There wasn’t as much chat now as we were both tiring and the heat was pretty oppressive now, but all was good. We soon arrived at the final cp. George was quicker than me here as he was only around 9km from the end. I was a little more relaxed as I was around 9km from the half way point. I topped up my water, grabbed yet more gels and ate some nuts and a banana. Within a few minutes I had caught George up again, so we ran together. This final stretch was not so well sheltered as we were running through fields, so the sun suddenly felt ten times more powerful. I was starting to feel it, so I walked a bit and told George that he should go on without me, in case any other 50′s were close behind. I only walked very briefly, but made sure to drink lots as I did so. I needn’t be too sparing with my supplies as the cp’s were pretty frequent.
I climbed over a stile and turned left down a country road. In about 5 mins I was at the midway cp. There were quite a few people here as it was not just a cp but also a finishline for the 50′s, so there a few friends and family waiting for them to finish. I was the fifth runner in and the first 100 miler. I drank a load of water and coke, George topped up my bladder for me, I grabbed some more gels and was off, for the return journey.
I was looking forward to this as I would now get to see almost all of the field run past me, which you wouldn’t normally experience in a race. I would also get to see how big the gaps behind were.
From leaving the cp to seeing the first 100 miler, the time was 18 mins. The runner was Mark. I didn’t think he’d be too far away. It was still way too early to really think anything about my current position. I must just run my own race and see what happens. As long as I put everything into it, then I’ll be happy (so I kept telling myself!).
It was really cool running past everyone, as I got lots of encouraging comments and grins. I tried to soak up as much of the positivity as I could as I knew that once I had passed the back marker, I’d be all alone again, and I’d be running into the dark. Due to the course being largely through woodland, this was going to be a pretty dark night. As the more intense heat trailed off a little, the gaps between runners was growing. I knew that soon I’d be seeing the final runner (not that’s I’d know of course!). I’d heard from the cp’s that the drop out rate had been fairly high. Pretty standard when the sun is blazing.
Interwoven through my thoughts (and non-thoughts) throughout the whole run were my future efforts in Greece. Was I on the right path? Was this race an indicator of form? Would I get it right this year? Could I deal better with the heat and stay well hydrated?
As the night closed in, I felt a slight sense of urgency as I was getting close to the Box Hill cp. I had earlier estimated that I could possibly get to the bottom of the hill before needing my torch. For some reason I always set myself a pointless challenge involving staying torchless for as long as possible going into the night. This time it looked like I’d be succesful! I was now at the top of the steep descent down the steps of Box Hill and there was still around 30 mins of useful light left. I let myself drop down the steps as fast as my sore thighs would allow. I ran along the flat at the bottom, and hopped over river using the stepping stones and then I was at the cp.

I was feeling pretty weary now and was happy to have reached this cp, I think I might have sat down for a minute as I ate another wrap and grabbed some more gels. I dug my headtorch out from my bag and put it on my head. It didn’t need to be on yet, but it would be very soon. I left after a little bit of faffing. Soon, I was back running through Denbies. There were lots of markers out for some charity walk, and soon I started passing a steady flow of walkers in the half dark, beautiful evening. I imagine I must have looked a bit mental!
Soon after passing through Denbies, the torch came on. The course was really well marked and it really helped that I had ran it 8-10 hours earlier. My memory is generally pretty shoddy to say the least, but for some reason I seem to remember hundreds of miles of trails pretty well. Remembering family birthdays is another thing though!
As the darkness closed around me, the real race began. Now for the pain. The head games. The constant draining of motivation. The almost overriding desire to just lay down and sleep. These are the things I think I’m getting better at, but still need to improve on a massive amount. I was starting to walk more and more frequently to do tasks that didn’t really need doing. My mind just tricks me into thinking I have to stop to check something or other, then I realise what is happening and slowly and painfully lurch forward into something that resembles a run.
Soon I was running up a hill to the penultimate cp. The course had been marked every mile or so with glow sticks (worked amazingly!), but as I got closer to the cp the glow sticks got more and more frequent till they gave me the impression I was an aircraft coming into land! Amazing. I messed about for probably too long and picked at the food absentmindedly, half expecting the second place runner to come into view. I had absolutely no idea what the gap was behind me, but was aware that whoever was behind would be getting told how far in front I was. A definite advantage! Never mind, I’ll just keep plodding, and soon I’ll be able to sit down.
I was glad with the knowledge when I left the cp that there was only one more cp before the end. Looking at the time, I was predicting a time of just over 20hrs. Even though this was way above my pre race expectations, I was a little disappointed that I was going to go so close to 20hrs and not beat it.
I fought to stay running for as long as possible before bimbling along for 30 seconds or so before starting up again, this broke up the time a bit, and I soon arrived at the final cp, where there was a roaring bonfire and loud music. This was far too tempting! I just wanted to lay down next to the fire and be slightly too warm and drift off, but I just downed a couple cups of coke and ran off into the darkness. Around 9-10 km remained. I had a bit of a panic on as I was getting a little paranoid that number 2 was catching me up. surely they would be with my ever decreasing pace! I kept turning around to check for a light bouncing alone in the inky darkness. I came out of the trees and ran along a trail for a while and just before I disappeared back into the trees, I glanced behind, and sure enough, there was the dreaded light. This gave me an added sense of urgency, and as much as my tired body allowed, I bolted. Soon enough though, I was crossing a field, and there it was again, only this time lots closer. He would catch me in minutes. He was traveling at a far quicker pace than me and I knew that I wouldn’t be any competition for him once he caught me. As he seemingly with ease ran up beside me, we chatted a bit. His name was Robbie and he knew my name. I apparently beat him by 2 mins in the Grand Union Canal Race this year! Then he was off. I had no answer to this and just did the best I could for the final 5km hoping that no-one else would do the same.
After a tough final 5km I saw Mimi, who informed me the end was just around the corner, and sure enough it was!
Phew! Second place was mine, and as I looked down at my stopwatch, it said 19:57. Awesome, I beat 20hrs. Brilliant.
I saw Robbie and congratulated him, and 10 minutes after me, arrived Mark in third place! top three within 20 minutes in a 100 miler!
I had a couple cup-a-soups and then crawled into a van and got some incredibly uncomfortable shuteye as I had about 5hrs to kill before my train journey home!
When I woke up and peered out the window, I saw that there were many more people, runners and crew stood around. I crawled out. I didn’t exactly feel great, but I wasn’t to bad either. The train journey back was painful, but thankfully uneventful.

So, as I write this a few weeks later and I have had some time to reflect on my race, I am happy to still be content with my second place. I gave it my all and I see it as one of, if not my best race yet. A win would be nice of course, but this has proven to myself that for me, it really is a quest to better my own fitness, mental strength, resilience and thus my overall satisfaction. There are of course two sides to what I do ; the personal, physical challenge and the other, equally important one is the outdoors element. The more trail running I do, the more I want to do. Some of the scenery I am so incredibly fortunate to witness, throughout the changing seasons, from dawn to dusk, wet, icy, snowy, bone dry, no matter how challenging, often gives me a real high that sub-consciously plasters a massive, insane grin across my face. Without this, running would be incomplete for me. The pain and the time that I put into my running is easily wiped out with just one of these moments. Anyway, that’s enough of the hippy talk!

As is usual for this year my recovery was swift, which was great as on the Thursday a friend and I flew out to Geneva for a 6 day holiday in Morzine in the French Alps. We took our mountain bikes and I of course threw in a few pairs of trainers. I’ve been to the Alps three times before ; twice on family holidays which I have really fond memories of, and about 6-7 years ago on a skiing holiday which was awesome. When we got to our chalet, I went for a run towards Roc D’Enfer, a mountain that I had eyed up on the map I had bought in the UK. I ran for 1hr 20 before turning around. I was blown away with the beauty (as expected!). The next day we both went mountain biking for most of the day. I had never ridden on such incredible trails and insane downhill runs. I was in heaven! I couldn’t see how I would ever get bored here! Over the next few days, there was much more mountain biking and running as the weather was incredible and dusty dry! Everyone was telling us how lucky we were as it had been a particularly wet summer!

Whilst walking into town one night we noticed a poster for a running race on the Sunday. It was a vertical km race called La Couratt’ de Nyon, starting in the centre of Morzine and heading straight up a mountain called Nyon. It was just over 7km in distance and as the name implies almost exactly 1000 metres in ascent! I’d read about these races and thought it would be a brilliant opportunity. Not exactly my format of race, and way too short, but I was in pretty good shape so thought I’d have a go. The winner finished in 52 minutes and I finished in 14th place (80 odd finishers) in 1hr 2 mins! I felt great after as well. I was surprised with my performance. The view from the top of Nyon was absolutely incredible, so I hung around for a while and took some pictures and then with much excitement I begun the long descent to the half way point to where my friend was waiting. We had lunch then I ran down to Morzine where my bike was locked up, got changed into my cycling kit and we went off to ride some more trails! What a fantastic holiday!

Next is, of course, my second attempt at Spartathlon. My target for the year. I feel much better prepared this time round and my training is complete. All I have to do now is run it, Easy!

I will of course blog it asap. This posting has for some reason been the most painful by far. I’m not sure why. I do hope that everyone is enjoying their running as much as I am!

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