Way back in March, I wrote my first blog entitled Buy The Ticket, Take The Ride about my entry to the North Downs Way 100 and my dreams and ambitions to enter the sub-24hr 100-mile club.
Fast-forward 5 months and with over 1000 miles of training on the legs, the day of the North Downs Way 100 finally arrived. This is the story of that day and the immediate build-up to an epic adventure.
Six weeks previously I’d run 100 miles in under 22 hours at Run24. Coming out of that race I’d ramped up to an 80-mile week and tapered back down to a zero-mile week prior to the race. I’d tried to be sensible and ‘only’ did the final 28 miles of Round The Rock in Jersey 2 weeks earlier instead of the full 48. Despite my best intentions, work had conspired against my plans to taper, and the fortnight prior to the race had been spent in hotels – so not the best way to ensure I was well rested. Anyone who has spent any amount of time living out of a suitcase and enduring hotel life can probably appreciate this.
Race registration was at 5am on Saturday morning for a 6am start, so I was up at 3am in plenty of time to ensure I was there on time, fed, watered and lubricated. Mandatory kit required a backpack as we needed to be able to carry a minimum of 1.5l of water, maps, waterproof jacket, headtorch and whatever other luxuries we’d need for the next day-or-so out on the trail. After a short safety presentation, around 120 of us wandered down to the trailhead of the North Downs Way in Farnham for the start at 6am. An ominous NDW sign read “Dover 153 miles”, fortunately we were only off to Wye – 100 miles away.
I’d run the first 33 miles as part of the Pilgrim Challenge so knew what was coming at the start. Once again, I’d set my sights on hitting 50 miles at 10 hours so was pacing myself towards that initial goal. As we set off, the mist quickly cleared to reveal a bright and crisp morning over the Downs with spectacular views. As the morning progressed though, the crispness started to turn into heat and as we approached the fearsome steps of Box Hill it was clear that it was going to be a tough day at the office.
I met a lad who I’d talked to at the Wye 50 and we ran together for 20-miles or-so, up Box Hill and past the Olympic rings displayed at the summit for the cycling. I let him carry on ahead up the equally tough Reigate Hill as I started to go through my customary bad patch at 5 hours. Miles 26-40 hurt, there’s no other way of describing it – I was trying to stick to my 10-hour plan and running outside of my capability on the terrain. Eventually I just had to slow down and accept that I wasn’t going to hit my interim goal. It’s not worth DNF-ing just to try and hit an arbitrary goal.
At about Mile 40 I caught-up with an American chap who’d come over especially to do the NDW100 for his birthday. We had a long chat about the ultra scene and it turns out he knows Dean Karnazes and had run a 200-mile race that Dean is famous for in his seminal, (albeit tabloid) book Ultramarathon Man. I told him I was planning to do a US 100-miler next year, so I may have a contact for pacing duties at Western States. At some point a bit later on I took a wrong turn while blindly following a group and we got lost, adding a few extra miles – still, it wouldn’t be an ultra without a bit of misdirection!
My nutrition strategy was simple – eat real food at the 14 aid stations, (this included cake, sausage rolls, wraps, watermellon etc…) and then use the supplied GU gels inbetween. This cut down the food I needed to carry, although I was finding that in the heat 1.5l of water was barely sufficient to last between aid stations which could be 1.5-2 hours apart. This was to become a problem later…
50 miles arrived in around 10h 30min, so I was 30 minutes off my 24hr schedule, but not really concerned. The race had a 50-mile sister option and I enviously watched the 50-mile finishers with their pints outside the pub as I started back towards the trail from the checkpoint. I think I was craving a cold pint of shandy for the next 10 miles. It was also around the point that I realised that when I looked down at my race number it said “99” – Oh, for an ice cream with a flake!
If I’ll remember one thing about the NDW, it’s the steps! The fearsome Box Hill steps which ascend 200m were just a warm-up for the route which was advertised as having around 10,000′ of ascent. While this didn’t seem much over 100 miles, the nature of the steep climbs and descents on these steps was punishing on the mind and body.
After leaving the 50-mile checkpoint there was a 17-mile stretch through the next two CPs which I don’t remember a lot of if I’m honest… I’d put my iPod on and gone into autopilot, just cruising through the miles. I stocked-up at the 60-mile point and resolved to get to CP9 at 67 miles before putting on the headtorch and turing off the iPod.
In retrospect, I should have known CP9 was short as I ran the “7 miles” from the previous CP in 70 minutes. For the uninitiated, 10-minute miles seem impossibly slow, but for this ultra-runner it’s a sprint – especially after 60 miles / 14 hours. Anyway – CP10 was only supposed to be 8.8 miles away so a litre of water and a couple of GUs should get me there.
Over 2.5 hours later, dehydrated I got to CP10. I don’t know what happened, someone said they measured it at 11 miles which sounds about right. I talked to loads of people and it was the same story all round, people were throwing up with dehydration and couldn’t take in food. I don’t know of anyone who didn’t run out of fluid well before the CP, and it’s not like there were any shops or pubs to jump into either. It wasn’t pretty.
By this point I was just trying to get to the point where I could ‘walk-it-in’ and still get sub 24hr which I’d estimated at 3mph, (20:00 min/mile) As I wasn’t wearing a Garmin, all I could go on was where I’d been told the Checkpoints were. Coming out of CP10 I was back into the woods and a long, tedious section of steps which was very draining. The trail had also become quite technical and very difficult to run in the dark, especially when tired so I did a lot of power hiking to CP11.
Coming into CP11 at 00:30 the marshall shouted at me that I was 30 minutes outside the ETA for a sub-24. I’d done my calculations – I had 5.5 hours to do 18 miles, even in my carb-depleted brain dead state I was sure I could make that, how hard could the next section be?
The next leg was brutal – bearing in mind I’d been up for nearly 24 hours and run over 80 miles, to hit us with really gruesome technical trails, huge steps covering massive climbs and descents was evil. A group of us leapfrogged each other, not really chatting – but each in their own little world of pain showing mutual respect for each other. We all fell into the penultimate CP at 03:00, the staff told us we had 10 miles to go and 3 hours to do it. The next CP was 7 miles away, sub-24 was still on!
Our merry gang of pilgrims paced it perfectly to get to the final CP with an hour to go, this meant we’d be able to walk the final 3 miles with the sunrise – nice… However, when we got to the final CP a marshal confirmed – “It’s 4.5 miles according to what people are saying”
NOOOOOOOO! I’m not going to make it was all I could think, that’s too far. Trying to do basic mental arithmetic after over 24 hours awake and running nearly 100 miles, (remember I’d got lost) is almost impossible. Anyone who’s tried to calculate their required pace at the end of a marathon will be able to empathise.
Something clicked inside me, I decided that I wasn’t going to give up – I’d spent so long training for, and chasing this – another 60 minutes of pain really wasn’t going to make any difference. I felt like Usain Bolt as I stormed off through a cornfield towards the distant village of Wye which seemed like a lifetime away.
Actually, once I started running like the wind, (about 10:00 / mile pace) it felt quite nice after shambling along. The sun was rising over the cornfields and it was one of those ‘moments’ I guess… I came into Wye with 15 minutes to spare and crossed the line in 23hr 46min, James, the Race Director presented me with my medal, t-shirt and the “100 miles, One Day” belt buckle I’d coveted since the beginning of the year.
As it was a point-to-point race the bus back to the start wasn’t returning until the 30-hour cut-off at noon which gave me 6 hours to kill. However, it was another sunny day – so after a quick cleanup and snooze I spent the morning chatting with my fellow runners, swapping war stories, comparing grisly feet, playing “Black Toenail Top Trumps” and cheering on the finishers. People were still coming in just before the cutoff and only around half the field finished with the rest dropping out or missing the cut-offs. If you want to see human emotion at it’s most basic – go and stand at the end of a 100-mile race!
The bus dropped us all back at Farnham train station at around 2pm and I had to laugh as we all shambled and moaned on the way back to the start. It must have looked like a zombie invasion to the locals, all of us in identical NDW100 shirts!
Centurion Running put on an amazing race, and I’d wholeheartedly recommend anyone thinking of doing an ultra to look at their series, especially the 50-mile options for a novice ultra. The checkpoints are fantastically well stocked and staffed by people who know their stuff. I’m sure the problems with the advertised distances were outside of the organisers control, and probably due in part to the change of course from last year.
That’s it for my planned races at the moment, thankfully – at the moment, all the future Centurion races are full – including the bonkersly (TM) temping Piece Of String Fun Run. I’ve qualified for Western States and UTMB so will be entering the ballot for both of them in 2013. For the immediate future though, I’ll be putting my feet up and recovering.
Was it the harest thing I’ve ever done? No – Fellsman still wins!