North Downs Way 50

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I found the perfect prescription 
And I don’t care if its poison or medicine 
Too much is never quite enough 

I’m having a craving, I want all of your stuff

 

A year ago I was a little bit broken, both mentally and physically, from having to drop out of the Thames Path 100. I’d got a muscle injury and made the painful decision to drop at mile 95 rather than do any more damage. A few weeks later it was the North Downs Way 50 so I offered my services to Centurion as a volunteer. Having been treated so well by the aid station crew near Oxford I wanted to give a bit back to the community. I had a brilliant albeit knackering day as Centurion legend Nici Griffin’s “admin bitch” (my phrase) and as a result got a place in the 2016 race.

Even though I’d been lucky enough to get a spot at the London marathon, training had been geared toward this race. This resulted in less speed work, more hills, and three recce runs which meant I knew 90% of the route. This would have been 95% if I hadn’t got lost on one run but I was confident I knew where I was going. I wasn’t sure running London three weeks before was the best preparation but I hadn’t gone for broke so hopefully I had enough left to do myself justice.

I’ve got a heart in pretty good shape 

So come on let’s see how much of ya that I can take

 

Getting to Farnham (the start of the race) from Fulham on public transport for 7.30am was harder than I imagined but somehow managed to get there an hour early. Aside from the sleep I missed, this wasn’t such a bad thing, as it gave me plenty of time to catch up with a few old friends, make some new ones (Paul, Cat who was crewing for her dad Keith, doing his first 50, EmmaSusie and Shaun, and Jeff), and have a chat with the two female race favourites, Jess Gray (who I interviewed for Ultra magazine last year) and Holly Rush, another Twitter friend.

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Me, Ilsuk and Seanie. Ilsuk a bit hungover. Or possibly still drunk.

Kit check and registration went like clockwork as we waited for 8am to come round. James Elson did the funniest race briefing I’ve ever heard (you had to be there) and soon enough we were at the trailhead waiting for the off. With similar sub-10 hour thoughts in our heads, Ilsuk, Sean and I had a vague plan to run together and see how it went.

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Actually, I had quite a specific plan. I’d been looking at previous results (especially Sean from last year as I figured we were a similar pace) and one thing was abundantly clear. Runners take a lot longer on the second half than on the first. Now, this might seem obvious even to people who don’t run ultras, but on the North Downs Way 50, it is particularly the case. The flattish first half invites a speedy start and then the very lumpy second half tends to kick your butt. Above all else I wanted to be running for as long as possible, walking nothing but the steepest of hills. So my plan was to get to Box Hill (24 miles) in around 4 hours feeling not too bad and then do whatever it took to dip under a 10-hour finish. Or better still, beat my 2014 SDW50 time of 9:48.

The hooter went and we were off.

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Did everyone spot the Fairy Tree?

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No sign of N.W.A. Disappointing.

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Jazz hands! Seanie asleep in the background. (Photo: Stuart March)

The first half was a nice easy jaunt through Surrey, chatting with people, being surprised by familiar faces (hello Susie, Sophie, Cat, Claire and Dan!) and sampling the new (to me at least) maple bacon flavoured Gu gel.
falling

Susie catches me off balance

And of course, there was Allan Rumbles’ legendary bacon barge where this surreal sight greeted us.

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“Aren’t you a little short for a stormtrooper?”

Ultra magazine‘s Andy Nuttall was marking down people’s race numbers at Newlands Corner and it was great to catch up. Well, say hello. I wasn’t allowing myself any more than a few minutes at any checkpoint. They are time thieves!

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Coming into Newlands Corner. Photo by Stuart March.

After about 20 miles, I started feeling a bit weary and had to remind myself that this is normal. Even though it wasn’t halfway, running for several hours is tiring, and that during ultras you have good and bad patches. The key is just to keep going. Somehow, without planning it, the phrase “be relentless” popped into my head became my mantra for the day.
Sean and I trotted into the checkpoint just before Box Hill and it wasn’t a moment too soon as I was absolutely ravenous. I wolfed down a few sandwiches and filled my hands with food for the walk up the steps. I was feeling in decent shape.
Mile: 24
Time: 4:07

Rank: 87

 

The steps are ridiculously steep but I’ve done them so many times now that I knew it wasn’t long before I’d be at the top and running again. Familiarity breeds contentment sometimes. It’s still a bit of an effort though.

I’m feeling all of your side effects 
From the body buzz to the loss of breath 
I’ve got a thumpin’ up inside my chest 

You got me lookin’ like a hot mess

 

The stretch to the next checkpoint at Reigate Hill is a tough one at times but I was hoping my conservative start to the race would pay off and I could begin to pick up a few places. In the middle of this section I suddenly heard my name being called and coming towards us were friends Marina and Rhianon who were out for a training run and to support those racing.

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All of the smiles with Marina and Rhianon

It was a real boost to see some more friendly faces and this pushed me on to Reigate with Seanie where we caught up with Ilsuk. I had a quick catch up with Mark Thornberry, fresh from his Thames Path 100 triumph, inhaled a few slices of watermelon (mmm, watermelon) and set off for Caterham, seven miles east.

Mile: 31
Time: 5:44

Rank: 74

 

I’ve got an appetite I’m over indulgent 
Yeah if I know myself I’m just getting started
I’m screamin’, I’m shoutin’, I’m yellin’ I want it 

You’re the big thing and I’m fanatic

 

Shortly after this checkpoint was a section I’d missed on my recce run. The beauty of getting lost on a recce though is that you see new sights on race day and thanks to the excellent marking by Centurion I had no trouble finding my way. After going under the M25 we reached the series of never-ending uphill fields and it was either that or the heat which prompted Seanie to have a break so I pushed on, visualising the finish line and hoping to see Ilsuk again before then.

Aside from a few twinges in my left shin, I was feeling quite good at this stage – better than I had during my much shorter training run, strangely – and while I wasn’t exactly breaking any land speed records, I was moving quickly enough to overtake a few people.

Coming into to Caterham aid station at mile 38 I saw Bryan and Susie again, who complained I was moving too fast for her to get a photo of me.

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Caterham, mile 38 (Photo by Andrew Muzika)

True or not, it was a great confidence boost, as was a similar compliment from Ben manning the aid station. I’d caught up with Ilsuk again, although he was soon off up and the trail and my chase was back on. I left Caterham at about 3pm, just ahead of 10-hour pace, according to climbers.net.

As good a guide as that was, I was confident of slowing down less than the average runner but who knew what the final 12 miles would hold? There were still a lot of hills to go and I wasn’t getting any less tired. Weird, huh?

I can’t keep still, I’m dripping with sweat 
I’m sucking my tongue and chewing my lip
And the loss of breath
The loss of breath
The loss of breath

The loss of breath

 

Every now and then runners’ crews would pop up and applaud as we went by. Even though I didn’t know them and they didn’t know me, it’s a real boost to the tired runner. That and the beautiful trails of the North Downs Way.

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Wild garlic as far as the eye could see

A few miles of fields and gates with Ilsuk in sight, I eventually caught up with him at the bottom of Botley Hill. He assured me that no one ran it (video of the race winner apparently floating up it I saw later disproved this theory) and I was happy to take his word for it. As we came into the final checkpoint, Twitter friend Nikki bravely gave me a hug and some words of encouragement. It was around 4pm which gave us about two hours to complete the last seven miles and beat my target. But I really wanted to get in under my South Downs Way 50 time of 9:48…

Gorgeous single track. Nasty tree roots. Dappled sunlight. Near vertical climbs. Chipper cyclists cheering. Field after field of grass and crops and cows. Those last few miles were a mixed bag but between us, Ilsuk and I kept going, chasing down the group of three ahead, being relentless and dreaming of that big blue Centurion finish gantry. Finally we left the North Downs Way, went down the road to Knockholt Pound and up the path to the finish where I grinned my way to the line to be met by Jon and Natasha Fielden, timekeepers extraordinaire.
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Finish line smiles with Ilsuk (Photo: Stuart March)

Mile: 50
Time: 9:34

Rank: 53

 

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Happy finishers! (Photo: Stuart March)

Hugs accepted, along with a finishing medal, I sat down and enjoyed the moment.

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I’m feeling all of your side effects 
From the body buzz to the loss of breath 
I’ve got a thumpin’ up inside my chest 
You got me lookin’ like a hot mess 

But I feel the fuckin’ best

 

And I really did. As if it wasn’t already obvious from the photos, I was most definitely in my happy place on this race. This is in part thanks to it going well, but mainly because it’s a brilliant event (all of the thanks to Centurion and its amazing army of volunteers) and I spent the day with and seeing friends, be they other runners, known and unknown crew members, supporters and everyone else involved. I’m also fairly certain smiling makes it hurt a bit less so I’ll be employing the same tactics at this October’s Autumn 100 where I will get that buckle.

Final stats (according to Suunto)

Distance run: 50.8 miles
Elevation gained: 5,561ft
Race time: 9:34:45
Average pace: 11:29/mile
Finish place: 53/213 (199 finishers)

You might be wondering about the lyrics interspersed throughout this race report. They’re taken from a song by Lenno featuring Dragonette called ‘The Best’. It seems to be about the feeling the writer gets about someone they’re in love with but to me they also fit perfectly with how I feel about running ultras, and specifically a hilly one like the NDW50. In case Finnish disco pop electronica is your thing, here’s the video.

 

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