The North Downs Way 50 – A short story

Prologue

“There’s this race that starts in Farnham, (where I grew up), and finishes in Knockholt, (about 5 miles from where we live now). I’m going to sign up because it’s like I am running home and Poppy and you can come and support me.”  That’s the gist of the conversation I had with my wife last year after seeing a couple of friends run the Centurion North Downs Way 50 miler.  At this point I had no goals or expectations I just really wanted to run an ultra that was local.  I had also heard really good things about the Centurion races.

As 2018 was drawing to a close and I had pushed myself at Hurtwood to a decent finish despite being injured, I decided to make this my “A” race for 2019.  I would dedicate myself to a new training plan and the give it 100% during the time on the course.  You might wonder why this doesn’t happen at all races?  Well, in my brief experience of ultras so far, I found that the experience of completing was enough.  Yes there were small goals in each but apart from Hurtwood, I didn’t really push myself in the other 3.  The NDW50 would be very different.

The training for this race was focused, but also very different to the marathon plans I had previously followed.  I initially wondered if I was running enough volume but looking at my calendar, I was working out 6 times a week and that’s plenty.  With varied runs, time on the stair machine and usually 2 strength sessions, I felt myself getting stronger and stronger as the weeks went on.

During the run up to race day 2 things started to hit me mentally.

  • I had many dreams about running the race, like the whole race. By now I knew the whole route from various recce runs, (the bonus of it being local), and I would literally have the most vivid dreams about how I would take on various sections.It was so weird but oddly comforting.
  • I started to think about goals for the race.My goal when I started to train was to do the best I could and still enjoy myself. This was still my number one goal but now I started to think times.  This is really hard though as essentially this would be my 1st 50 mile race and I really had no idea about pace. Initially I settled on under 10 hours and that’s what I told people.  Then in the couple of days before the race I started thinking about the race as two halves, which it really is.  The first is about 600m of elevation and more runnable, the 2nd has about 1200m of short sharp assents.  You have to be careful not to overcook it early, but I thought if I could do 4hrs 30 to Box Hill then 5 hours in the 2nd half then I could do 9hrs 30. With that in mind these became my time goals.

Bronze: Sub 10 hours

Silver: 9 hours 30

Gold: As close to 9 hours as possible

Extreme: sub 9 hours

The major factors I was worried about were my right hamstring, which had tightened up a bit in the week leading up to the start, but more so my nutrition.  This had gone horribly wrong at Race To The Stones and I was quite worried about this.  In the lead up I had tried a few different options but in the end I bit the bullet and tried Tailwind the week before, it sat well in the last long run, so I set a new plan:

1 x 500ml flask of Tailwind every 2 hours (ish)

Alternating SiS gels with Soreen, sausage rolls and trek energy bars

Take on extra bits at aid stations as I fancied them.

I figured this would give me the necessary calories to power on through.

The Night Before

Being that the race started in my home town, I had the luxury of staying with my mum and step dad.  This was great as it was a familiar space and bed, even though I knew it would be a restless nights sleep, like they always are pre-race.  I also arranged to meet up with my friend Daniella and her partner Rich, who were running too, for pizza and pudding in the evening.  It was great to catch up on all their recent adventures and races.  This meal certainly calmed the nerves and so we arranged to meet up again at the start the next morning.

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It was great tone able to stay at my mums house

The Start

This year the organisers moved the HQ to Farnham Sports Centre, a place I know so well as I used to swim, play badminton and even roller disco there!  The sports hall looks so much smaller now though.  I arrived nice an early as always.  I find it less anxiety inducing to get everything in order early, then relax.  I had a quick kit check, collected my number and dropped my bag off, instantly impressed with how nice everyone was.  I even had a lovely chat with a lady called Karen who recognised my Wild Trail Runners top and asked if any more were coming.  She said that she used to attend the Nike running group that Maggie and Co used to pace. Small world!  After chatting with various runners, I met up with Dani and Rich for the race briefing which finished with words to the affect of “if your Garmin or watch shows 52miles at the end and you come to me to complain, I don’t care”, which brought a massive round of laughter as it’s standard these races are never exact and we all accept that.  What a super way to get us all in the mood.

 

We all then walked off to the start line which was just 10mins away, again walking though my old summer drinking stomping group by the river.  I positioned myself about 10m from the front, figuring this kind of position would give me the best chance to get a good rhythm but not be tempted to go to fast. Rich headed off towards the front, (he’s a quick marathon runner), and Dani a bit further back, (she is also a quick runner but was feeling a little under prepared).

Stage 1: Start to Puttenham Aid Station – 11km

At 8am the start horn sounded and off we went. Mags had told me take it easy, Ally had said take it easy…so I took it easy but this section is super runnable. With only one short  hill, it’s a mixtures of dirt tracks, woodland paths and road.  I settled into a pace which is my road easy pace of around 5.20-5.30/km and it felt pretty easy, so I just accepted it.  The weather though was warmer than I was expecting, I’d put sun cream on anyway and had my sun glasses at the ready but didn’t have a hat.  I just hoped it wouldn’t get too hot later! Before I knew it though we were at the aid station, I only needed a water top up, so just thanked the volunteers and moved on quickly.

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Nice easy trails to start

Stage 2: Puttenham to Newlands Corner – 24km

The Tailwind was going down nicely, the gels and Soreen were all working. My legs felt happy and I was just floating along. It wasn’t long until I crossed the river Wey and the sun was well and truly out to play by now.  I knew there was one big hill along this section and some down hills. Something I needed to make sure I did, was not destroy my quads going for it on the down hills!  The climbs were easy for me, I could just start running off the top like in training but I needed to make sure I was still light footed but not pushing it on those descents. It’s kind of hard to do but with some thought, I think I did a pretty good job.  Then before I knew it I was at the 2ndaid station.  This one has a toilet, so I took the opportunity to use said facilities, refilled my tailwind, water and ate some water melon. As I left the station, I checked my watch and the time was still looking good and I felt really comfortable.

 

Stage 3: Newlands Corner to Box Hill – 39km

This section is also fairly flat, it had a couple of short climbs but nothing major. You are mostly running along a hill side and through some woods all the way to Denbies Vineyard.  We crossed over with the Maverick race at some point here, which was fun.  I think the runners were on the end of a very steep climb at this point, which they didn’t look too pleased about, lol!  After we crossed the road to enter the vineyard, the road was crowded with support crews, which was awesome as they cheered all the runners on.  I checked my watch again and worked out I would be able to meet Gillian and Poppy at 12.00 so sent them a message to confirm a rough time. I actually couldn’t believe how quickly I was going to be honest.  I hoped it wasn’t too quick though as I could see the foreboding Box Hill up ahead! The drop down from Denbies is pretty steep and on a road.  Again, I was being super cautious with my decent but managed to overtake a few runners as well.  I was looking forward to getting to the aid station though and eating some real food, Tailwind bottle 2 was done, which was perfect timing.  After the run along the main road, through the tunnel and back up the other side I entered the aid station and checked the watch. It was sub 4 hours, wow. Ok so I knew now that unless something went very wrong I should get my silver goal but as to the others, I wasn’t taking anything for granted. I took a bit more time at this stop, eating some watermelon and then spotting the potatoes – the “buttery salty roasted new potatoes of joy” as I’m now calling them.  These were just the best – so easy to eat, full of carbs and tasty too.  I left that station ready for the inevitable climb of doom with a big smile.

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Running up to Newlands Corner

Stage 4: Box Hill to Reigate – 50km

That smile didn’t last long, the climb up was hard and long.  I knew it would be but it still doesn’t change how bloody hard those stairs are with 40km in your legs.  What kept me going though was knowing I would see Gillian and Poppy at the top by the view point.  I powered on up, over taking the hikers and day trippers.  As soon as I got to the top I went straight into a jog, coming into the open of the view point to cheers all round, which was just amazing. Gillian filmed my arrival, Poppy had been rolling down the hill so had to come back up for her hug and inevitable tales of her adventures.  We filled up my Tailwind and filled my pack with fresh supplies of SiS gels, Tailwind and Soreen. We had another hug and I ran off with my heart full and ready to tackle the 2nd half.  This next section is both beautiful and tough, there are a few sharp climbs but also some lovely rolling single track paths where you can just let your legs go. At some point along here I ran into Liv from my coaching course, which was a really lovely surprise.  She wished me well and told me I was looking strong and to not stop, which I almost did. Before I knew it, I was at the Reigate Hill climb.  It’s a twisty shit of a climb but I knew it was coming so mentally prepared myself for it and managed to overtake a couple of runners while hiking up, which I was super proud of.  Although I did notice I was starting to tire a bit once at the top.  My ability to run straight off was getting harder.  I switched my focus from the fatigue to getting to the next aid station which was a just a few KMs away.  Again I was welcomed by an awesome team of volunteers, I noticed one of them calling me by name which was really nice, then I remembered it was written on my bib!  This is a cool idea as it allows them to connect with you and I found it really comforting.  They filled my bottle and offered me all kinds of food.   This time for some reason I decided to have drink of Coke, eat watermelon and a cocktail sausage.  This is a combination that no one should ever try!

 

Stage 5 Reigate to Caterham – 61km

About 300m out of the aid station I had my first trail puke, which was a little unsettling to be honest.  I drank some water and walked for a bit, then ate the potatoes which I had also picked up. These seemed to help but as I started to run a bit more I noticed a bit of a pain nearing Merstham.  Like a stitch but not.  I think I was having some digestive stress (GI), so I needed to manage this by taking some short walk breaks.  It was during this time that I met Brandon.  He asked if I was ok and I told him I was just taking it easy for a bit to recover as I had been sick, then as we entered this lovely little church, he pointed out a water tap which had also been marked as drinking water. This turned out to be a life saver as I had been drinking a bit more than expected in the last 5km or so and might not made it to the next station.  After taking on this extra fluid my stomach settled down and I was able to run again without pain.  I soon caught up to Brandon and we had a great chat, I think he said this was his 4th or 5th time doing the race and was a bit of an ultra veteran, having done a few 100 milers as well.  At this point I wondered if a sub 9 was on for me.  He was looking at our time and thought maybe.  His advice was: “It will depend on how your legs are feeling for the last 6 miles, that’s key as it’s quite runnable, if you have it in you at this point then you definitely could get that time”. I wondered but decided not to let it be a thing because I was still really enjoying the race. There had been the climb out of Merstham up and up some more which were wearing my legs down a bit now though so what would be would be.  I also knew there were a few more climbs to come as this was the section I had run the most over the last year and a half.

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Following Brandon into Caterham Aid Station

Stage 6: Caterham to Botley Hill – 69 km

Coming into Caterham Aid Station with Brandon was great, I grabbed some more watermelon and filled up my Tailwind flask for the last time and took on extra water here. Again, I didn’t stay long and just pushed with a walk out.  I left Brandon behind at some point but knew I’d see him at the finish for sure.  Now my focus was really on getting to Botley Hill. The legs were starting to feel heavy but my mind was strong and I was so happy to be out there on this race. Running through the wild garlic, enjoying the views on a clear day was just awesome.  For this section I decided not to look at my predicted finish time, the focus was on moving forward, power hiking the climbs and skipping over the tree roots.  Then it came, you drop down onto the broken gravel road that is Botley Hill.  On my training run I over took a cyclist doing hill reps on this road.  This time I wasn’t nearly as strong but I focused on form. Don’t bend over Jon, keep the hips up and use the power in your legs to drive you up.  There was no one else around me at this point, so when I saw one of the aid station volunteers cheering me on at the top, it was so welcome.  I stopped at this aid station for a few minutes to eat some potatoes and water melon. I had tried eating the Soreen and it just wasn’t working for me anymore. I hadn’t even touched a trek bar so I needed some calories to add to the last gel I had left. With about 12km to go, this was going to be the hardest part of my race…getting over that finish line.

 

Stage 7: Botley Hill to Knockholt (the finish line) – 81km

This is the stage I am most proud of.  This is the stage where I ran smart, where I didn’t give up and gave all of myself. By now my legs were hurting, I checked my watch to see if might still make a sub 9 hours by about 2 or 3 mins. It had my finish time at 16.57, (we started at 8am), but I also knew I couldn’t keep the pace up.  I then remembered my number 1 goal; Enjoy myself. So I switched my watch back to navigation and ran/walked to feel.  If I needed 20secs, I walked, if I wanted to run, I ran. It was great, I seemed to be moving along at a decent pace even when walking. After the last short steep climb it was fields all the way to the final road stretch.  Those fields are dam confusing when your brain it tired though and I didn’t really know how many or how far it was, lol.  My pace dropped a bit as I decided to save myself for a decent run in for the final push. Then as I crossed those last few fields I spotted a familiar face ahead, it was Rich!  Wow, I had actually caught him up, I never thought it would happen but weirdly this spurred me on even more.  I now knew my time would be pretty close to 9 hours and just a bit earlier I had messaged Gillian to say I thought it would be about 5pm. She said they were just heading to the finish, so I knew that they would be ready.  Hitting the road, was amazing, I knew exactly where the finish was, but for some reason the road seemed longer than 2 weeks ago, go figure! Anyway, I rounded the corner by the pub and kicked on even more to finish strong, turning into the rec ground, up the gravel road.  I could see Gillian filming me and Poppy with her hand out for a high five, which of course I delivered before crossing the line.

The Finish

What a feeling.

Poppy ran to me, she was supposed to give me the medal but instead put it on herself, cheeky monkey.  I got it back for a few minutes for photos, then hugs with the family.

To be honest I was in shock and so, so tired.

Gillian checked my finish time: 9hr 01min 42 secs, placing 47thout of 252 starters. OMG!

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I then saw Rich cross the line and went over and congratulated him and collapsed. My legs were all over the place and I was getting some very weird spasms in places I had never felt before. Again the volunteers were on top form, getting me my bag, filling up my water and even sorting out my Rego shake for me while I stretched. Soon after I saw Brandon finish and thanking him for his support, he asked if I got sub 9, I said almost but I didn’t care.  We sat and cheered a few more runners in before heading home.

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Epilogue

It’s now been a few days and I have had time to reflect on this experience/challenge.  I am never going to be a top 10 finisher, let alone win a race like this.  All I can do is give it my best and that’s what I did on the day.

I was really happy with my pacing. Some might say I went too fast at the start but I think I did it almost perfectly.  When I ran the 2ndhalf in practice it took about 4hours 40mins, this time it was 5 hours, to only drop 20 mins because of 40km worth of fatigue to me is pretty good.

Race stat

This pacing chart shows consistency in the 1sthalf and a drop with the increased elevation in the 2nd

Somehow I achieved a 50K PB, running in at 5hr 9mins 58secs.  A sub 5 is definitely on, considering this included Box Hill and two longer than usual stops.

Training wise I think it would have been good to have done Guildford to Caterham as a run so that I could have climbed Box Hill on tired legs. Then I would have known what it felt like.  Just a minor point though.

Nutritionally, the gels worked as always and Tailwind was the perfect addition.  Food wise, I still haven’t got it nailed. Yes to watermelon and “Salty Buttery Potatoes of Joy” but I need to find something else that I can eat in the 2ndhalf of longer races.

This is what I ate:

10 gels

4 packets of Tailwind

2.5 slices of Soreen

15 potatoes

8 small slices of water melon

I didn’t even touch my sausage rolls, which is unusual. Suggestions please, as I am starting to run out of ideas!

As a race, I am so pleased with how it went for my first actual “Race” of this length. The Centurion team and volunteers are just the best, great aid stations, course markings and an epic finish line. Next year I hope to be back to take on 100 miles with you but on the South Downs as I NEVER want to run Box Hill to Knockholt…EVER AGAIN!

Thank you to Gillian and Poppy as always for putting up with my training, to Mags for being an awesome coach, to all the friends who have helped and supported me. I have learned so much from you all, it has meant the world to me truly.

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