The North Downs Way 100 – 8th August 2015

“One hundred miles is not that far”.

At least that’s what ultra-running legend, Karl Meltzer, would have us believe. But I wasn’t going to take his word for it. So on the 8th of August, having previously run a maximum of sixty six miles, I set out on the North Downs Way to find out for myself.

I’d picked a series of races which I thought would be great preparation for the NDW 100. But coming into the New Year injured, I had gradually withdrawn from most of them. Including The Winter Tanners, The Grizedale Marathon, South Downs Way 50 (though I did run 17 miles of this just to get some fitness back having been injury free for a couple of weeks), North Downs way 50 and then finally the Rome Marathon. So my chances of being properly fit for this race were looking pretty bleak.

Eventually, some time in mid March, I awoke one morning to find the injury had abated. As it had six months prior, it seemed to go from acute to non-existent during just one sleep.

I managed to get some racing experience in June and July with both the Scaffel Pike Marathon where I placed tenth and the Ultimate Trails 110K, which I’m embarrassed to say was a DNF. I was one of a group of five runners who suffered at the hands of a disgruntled farmer who had decided to sabotage the signage at the thirty four mile mark, as he claimed not to have been notified by the RD or the National Trust. The five of us managed to blindly follow the wrong path up and around Ullswater instead of heading left at the edge of the lake and making our way towards the checkpoint at Glennriding. In the end, we managed to add an additional six miles onto the distance, and with about three hours since a checkpoint I was low on energy and dehydrated. Sadly, that plus the fact that I’d moved from the top twenty to somewhere around seventy was enough to make me pull the plug. Respect to the other guys who carried on, motivated by the desire for UTMB points! One of whom I think must’ve managed to get lost again, as his Strava recorded a total seventy nine miles for a race that should’ve been sixty six.

So the NDW 100 was to be my first one hundred miler and a whilst I’d have felt happier coming in to this with a couple more months of training, I’d managed to cram in some good mileage in the two months prior. Even managing a ninety two mile week three weeks out from the race.  So I was confident that I should be able to make it around the course.

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The NDW100 course and aid stations

I made my way to Farnham on Friday evening and even arrived a bit early, keen to get the check-in admin out of the way, so I was free to concentrate on the race on Saturday morning. The legendary Centurion organization was up to scratch and Nici released us with big smiles at the precise moment they had allocated.

On my way out I bumped into Drew Sheffiled, whom I’d first met at Paul Navesy’s successful 50K world record attempt at the end of last year. We chatted about our running year to date, and Drew shared his experience of the Andorra Ultra Trail with it’s 13,500m of elevation. Which sounded utterly horrendous. But was great in terms of putting my own challenge into perspective – a mere one hundred miles and just 3000m of elevation!

Andorra Ultra Trail course profile. I know you were wondering.
Andorra Ultra Trail course profile. I know you were wondering.

In the morning, after negotiating a significant M3 diversion, we arrived at the start with only twenty minutes until the ‘go’. I made my way to starting line, where I bumped into Richard Felton of Pro Feet in Fulham, and Ilsuk Han. Whilst Ilsuk and I hadn’t previously met, he lives and runs in my neck of the woods, and we’d been following each others running exploits on Strava. As you do.

As we waited for the race to start the nerves were pretty raw. It was going to be a long day, and I really wanted to reach the finish in a time I could be proud of. Speaking of which, my goals were:

  • Plan A – Sub 20 hours
  • Plan B – Sub 22 hours
  • Plan C – Sub 24 hours

About ten miles in I settled into a good rythm at about nine and a half minute miles (which was at least a m/mile faster than I’d promised myself I would run at early on), so I knew it was too fast. But as you’d expect, at that point it felt very easy. I was enjoying the rythm and I thought I’d be able to run like that all day.

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Arriving at an early aid station

For what I think was at least couple of hours I ran with Ry Webb, who ultimately would finish fourth and Janos Orsos, who’d also go on to finish strong in nineteenth. It’s one of the great joys of this sport, being able to meet and chat with great people, who hopefully you get to meet and even run with again at other events.

My crew for the first twenty one miles consisted of my mum and sister, who did a great job of cheering me through the first aid stations and keeping me fed. Then my ever patient wife, Irene, took over. But having been stuck in traffic, I didn’t see her until the 50 mile mark.

The course rolled on and as it did so, I kicked myself that I’d never run the North Downs Way before. Especially given it’s so close to South West London where I live. It’s steep at times, but very runnable and the views around the Surrey hills really are stunning.

BMRP8P A group of people enjoying the view of Dorking from Box Hill in Surrey, England.
Enjoying the view of Dorking from Box Hill

Approaching Box Hill someone I thought I recognised wearing the fabled yellow Centurion jersey came tearing down the edge of the steps as we made our way up. A few minutes later I recognized a friend of mine, Alex Visram, who was trying to chase the other runner down. It turns out the other runner was Danny Kendall, of the Centurion Ultra Team and a very accomplished ultra runner. Certain that he wasn’t going to catch Danny, Alex was only too happy to turn around and run back up Box Hill with me for a mile or so. He told me that I was in the top twenty, which was a pleasant surprise, and we chatted about his recent Lakeland100 finish. Actually, this was to be his only training run between that and taking on the might of UTMB later in August. I wished him luck and kept moving.

Now before I embark on challenge of this nature, there are two things I like to have covered. The first is a good night’s sleep, which I failed at miserably. The excitement was all just too much, and I suffered from that child on the-night-before-Christmas syndrome. The second is to get the pipes cleared before we leave the house, which again, I failed at. So I knew at some point, at least once in the race, I was going to have to find some relief. The question was whether it was going to be squatting in the woods somewhere with only a headlight for company, or somewhere more inviting and hygienic. Luckily, as we made our way to Reigate Hill at around the thirty one mile mark, the urge overcame me, and in fourteenth place at this point, I was possibly the first to use the pristine toilets. Complete with a fresh toilet roll. Yes, I left it as I found it, but perhaps with rather less loo roll. Though I did hear that they were closed down as more runners made use of it. Not guilty!

IMG_3408Rolling out of the aid station I plugged in my headphones. Something I’ve never done before, despite always carrying music with me when racing. I’d pre selected a mix of chilled and some get-the-blood-pumping stuff, which worked beautifully, and the next twenty miles to Knockholt floated by whilst I got lost in the music and the terrific scenery.

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I was surprised at how much of the course was on covered woodland paths, which frankly was a godsend, as it provided some much needed shade away from the heat of the midday sun. That said, mile forty to fifty saw us hit a patch where we had to negotiate not just multiple styles, but a series of cow-filled fields. And as any trail runner knows, cows, regardless of how stupid and placid they appear, are in fact highly calculating and aggressive predatory beasts. Or at least that’s as they appear once you’ve been chased and circled by a bunch of them protecting their youth.

All alone, I gritted my teeth and faced the horror that awaited me. Field after field full of cows, but I’m not sure even one of them noticed me. That’s one thing the NDW has over the SDW, where just before Exton there’s a field full of notoriously evil beasts that have tried to claim the life of many a runner. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if a few of them are bulls masquerading as cows. That would explain a lot.

As I ran into Knockholt I was met by three very welcome and familiar faces. The first was my wife who would go on to crew me for the rest of the day and the others, my first two pacers of the day. I chose these guys not necessarily for their running ability, though both of them are or were in their younger years very accomplished sportsmen, but because they’re two of my oldest friends going back even before school days. They know me better than most, and importantly we share the same childish sense of humour. So I knew they could keep my spirits up, and they’d also be perfectly comfortable telling me to ‘shut up’ and to ‘quit moaning’.

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Danny and I leaving Knockholt

Danny Murray, also my cousin, commenced pacing duties at mile fifty. The seriousness with which he was taking his warm up had me a little concerned, and it later transpired that it was the furthest he’d ever run, despite being something of a cross country runner back in his school days. He did a sterling job, pushing from time to time and whilst this was probably the least interesting leg in terms of scenery with a great deal of road, we both enjoyed the journey as the miles rolled by.

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Getting a massage from Nick in the back of his pick-up

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Taking over at mile sixty was my old friend, Nick Beale. Nick has spent time in the territorial SAS, where he had to pass some pretty intense selection tests that are essentially ultramarathons, but with rucksacks that weigh the same as a large child. I knew he’d push me and generally just not accept me trying to walk. We kept a pretty good pace with the odd bit of walking and I think he genuinely enjoyed the experience as much as I did. Perhaps we’ll see him at a Centurion event in the future?

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The leg from Wrotham to Ranscombe Farm was really stunning. We passed through some beautiful scenery including a field filled with meadow flowers and literally thousands of sun flowers. There are plenty already posted on the Centurion community Facebook page.

At Ranscombe Farm Nick passed the pacing batton to my mate from Serpentine running club, Derry Lozano-Hoyland. He’d offered to help and I’d bitten his arm off, knowing his calm chatty personality, and passion for running would be just what I needed at this point. That said, I’d pre-warned him that if I was going to have a low and get grumpy it was going to be around the seventy mile mark. And I did. I’d also shifted to a walking vs. running ratio of about 60/40.

Irene, Derry and I at the 70 mile crew point
Irene, Derry and I at the 70 mile crew point

Knowing all too well what he was letting himself in for, Derry did his thing. He didn’t stop talking from 8pm when I met him until we finished eight and a half hours later. And he seemed perfectly content to get little more than monosyllabic answers at best and either silence or grunts at worst.

We trucked along in the dark, and when he thought we’d been walking too long, he’d simply ask ‘Is this a running bit?’. He kept this up for the duration, knowing that I could only say ‘no’ so many times before I’d have to concede and run for a bit. Eventually we slipped into an unofficial agreement whereby for every three times he’d ask, I’d have to break into a run. This must have saved me hours and I know I wouldn’t have done it so readily on my own. The value of a good pacer really cannot be underestimated for these events.

At some point here we came across Gary Dalton, who I knew was going to be pacing the final leg for Richard Felton. Gary had clearly decided Rich and I needed some motivation and first told me that Rich was going to do his damndest to beat me. Then, when he took over pacing duties for Rich, he told him I’d said something similar. At this point I didn’t much care, I was just doing everything I could to stay in the race and silence the voices that, probably quite reasonably, were telling me that there were better things I could doing with my time late on Saturday evening.

Some time later as Derry and I trudged through the woods, and I was taking respite between the first and second ask of a fresh game of ‘Is this a running bit?’, I heard voices and saw some additional light creep up from behind us. It was Gary and Rich, and despite stopping for a brief ‘we-can-do-this-shit’ hug, they charged on by. And yes, if I’m honest, I did start to think that I had to try and hang on to them.

The period which included Bluebell Hill, Detling and Hollingbourne was pretty much the low point for me. I ran out of energy and enthusiasm. Had it not been for Derry trying to keep my spirits up, I wonder whether I would have slogged this out alone.

Irene, who’d already been crewing most of the day, was there at every aid station and crew point with a big smile on her face and words of encouragement. Though she later admitted that, as she watched my deteriation, she’d prepared a speech, should I mention the ‘q’ word. I’d warned her weeks before that there’s always a possibility, you just never know, but that on no account should she accept it. And by all accounts there wasn’t going to be any chance of that!

Somewhere in the darkness around Hollingbourne we joined Sam Robson, James Brouner and their pacer, Mark Perkins, who amongst other ridiculous achievements, finished the 2015 one hundred and forty mile GUCR in 22.42. A time for that distance that I simply cannot get my head around. But luckily for me, at least, he’s been carrying an injury so was travelling a little slower.

So with about ten miles to go the five of us created a tight little train, got our heads down and without discussing it, decided to push through to the end. Having been in a pretty shitty place for the last five or six hours I’d found my legs again, and we ran what felt like seven m/miles (they were significantly more than that) all the way to mile one hundred. At which point Derry decided I owed it to myself to really push for the final section, and there just half a mile before the end, I caught sight of two orange Pro Feet T-shirts, which just had to be Gary and Rich. But try as we might, we just couldn’t quite make up the ground.
IMG_3404In the end we finished in 22.35, a second or two behind Gill Cramer, who went on to propose to his girlfriend on the finish line and I’m pleased to report that she said ‘yes’. That really could have ruined what should have been the absolute high point of the day, had it gone the wrong way.

It was a truly epic day, and an incredible experience shared with good friends old and new. Everything people say about the organisers, Centurion Running, is true. If asked for feedback, I genuinely wouldn’t want to change a thing. And the army of volunteers manning the registration, marshalling the course and the aid stations are just incredible. I’m eternally grateful for all the help I had from complete strangers throughout the course of the day.

Now that a few days have passed and I’ve had time to reflect, I am sure I’ll do another 100 miler. In fact, I’ve already saved the registration opening day of the SDW 100 in my diary. I winced a little at sharing this with my wife, but she gave me that look and said, “I knew this would happen, even at 3am when you were telling me how you’d never do another one.”

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