North Downs Way 100 – A View from the Back

This is my view from the back of the field at the Centurion North Downs Way 100, my 3rd 100 mile race, having completed the South Downs Way 100 and Autumn 100 in the previous 2 years.

The North Downs Way was always going to be the most difficult of the 4 Centurion 100 mile races, so it was more important than ever to be prepared for what was ahead.

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A huge part of this was familiarising ourselves and our crew/pacers with the course.  I have always been a believer in knowing what’s ahead, even if it does mean that I know about every single sets of steps on the route (especially those when you leave the Detling aid station at 82 miles).

This meant 3 trips north from Sussex to run Box Hill to Knockholt Pound, Knockholt Pound to Bluebell Hill and Bluebell Hill to the end in Ashford.  This is seriously time consuming, as you have to drive to the end of the stage, drop off a car, then drive to the start, run to the end, then drive back to the start to pick up the car.  It’s well worth it though.  It builds up team morale, you get to know the course and we found it great fun.  We even ran the Knockholt Pound to Bluebell Hill section through the night to simulate race conditions.  We got hopelessly lost.

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We saw some great sights that summer, including the biggest cow in history.  Preparation was good and nearly injury free.

Race weekend finally arrived and we began our adventure on Friday afternoon.  There were 3 of us, Nick, Philippe and myself.  The journey to Farnham was a bizarre one, as the second part of the train ride is along the foot of the North Downs Way in the opposite direction to the race.  It’s actually really lovely to see a section the course from another angle, although pretty daunting as well.

We stayed at the Daniele Hotel/Restaurant overnight in what seemed to be a converted barn.  A lovely place, but the hottest room in the world, which was probably above the kitchen.  We had tea and a couple of beers at the Six Bells before returning to try to get some sleep.

The owners took care of us and made sure that we had access to the kitchen in the morning to make ourselves some breakfast before the usual opening time.

The 2 mile walk to the sports centre for the race brief was downhill thankfully
and we meet a pair of foxes and a deer on the way.  A lovely way to lift the spirits after about 4 hours sleep.

James delivered the usual detailed race brief to the expectant crowd of nervous/excited runners before to make our way to the start of the North Downs Way, a 10 minute walk away.

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It was lovely to share a moment with Philippe before we left.  He had DNF’d this race a couple of years ago and we promised each other that neither of us were going to listen to this particular race brief again (in the nicest possible way).

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I had a very specific plan for the start of the race. Slow. Slow. And even slower if I could.  I knew that the second half of the race would be tough.   I know Box Hill to Knockholt also posed some particular challenges (hills and rutted fields).  Coupled with the heat of the day and my inability to cope with it, I planned to leave Box Hill steps after 5 hours 45 minutes and half way (Knockholt) after 13 hours.  This would give me plenty of time to stop to eat on the way and at half way and leave me capable of running through the night when the temperatures dropped.

The first 25 miles of the race are the easiest.  The hills are not excessive, underfoot it is less flinty and the temperatures are manageable, at least to begin with.  The morning was beautiful.  The fog was lying over the fields and these views just filled me with joy.

The trails passed along fields of sweetcorn, through thin country lanes and along fern lined footpaths.  If ever the phrase ‘we are lucky to be doing this’ was in order, now was the time.  And I got to share a lot of that time with Philippe.

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I was one from last at the first timing check point and two from last at the second one.  This was perfect.  I was well under cut off and as the race developed, I made steady progress up the field.

This was a rolling picnic.  Eating real food along the way (nuts and fruit bars) and feasting at the aid stations.  We enjoyed creating food cocktails by mixing things at the aid stations.  Chocolate, tangerines and cheese sandwich at the same time was my favourite.

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Running the flats and downs, walking the hills, passing through aid stations and chatting along the way, I reached the Box Hill stepping stones in very good spirits and ready for a good feed.

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I left the stepping stones after 5 hours 40 minutes, bang on schedule and headed up the first set of steps (get used to them, there are a few more to come and it’s a heck of a walk to the top) to meet my crew, Andrew and Sue, at the top.

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It’s a wonderful view and they had a cool box full of lovely food, where I ate mainly cheese.  I have known Andrew and Sue for about 7 years.  Andrew was Chairman of my running club when I first joined.  He made me incredibly welcome when I first joined and it was a real pleasure to have him crew and pace for me.  Sue was our Head Coach and it was great that she same along to support and drive.  2 lovely people and great to share this with them.

After Box Hill, the course was familiar, as we had run it all over the previous 6 weeks,  although it didn’t seem quite so tough in small chunks.  Hills and steps are in order, as well as really quite runnable downhills.  There are sections that are overgrown, which is where the calf guards come in handy to fight off the nettles and the briars.

As the temperature was rising and I slowed down (all part of the plan), I met the crew again at Merstham before heading back up onto the Downs.  These climbs from the foot and back to the top of the Downs are hard work.  They are made even harder for tall people, due to low hanging branches that you have to duck under.

The final meeting point with the crew before half way was Gangers Hill, which is a very low key place next to a small car park.

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The crews really were amazing and we saw all of them together, as all 3 runners were relatively close to each other.  I was still eating and drinking well, which was great, as I was on my own now for the next 10 miles.

The plan was to leave Knockholt Pound, half way, after 13 hours.  This allowed for plenty of time to slow down in the heat of the day after Boxhill, and leave enough time to sit down at half way to change clothes, take stock, eat, drink, reload and reorganise the back pack and get out with plenty of daylight left and 17 hours to cover any eventualities in the second half.  That section was hard work at times, especially towards Knockholt.  The sun was blazing down and the fields were rock hard and rutted.  My highlight was the traffic speed checker on the hill down to the half way point clocking me at 9 miles/hour.

I hit that target almost perfectly.

My company for the first half on the race was 5live on the radio.  A mixture of the Ashes Test, day 3 and the first day of the football season.  I must admit to shedding a tear during the hour that they were talking about Justin Edinburg and the legacy that he left.  His family were at the first game since he died.  Hard to compute this kind of thing happening at such an early age.  Another reason to be happy to be out there doing this, health intact.

Steve was with me for the night section from half way.  It was great to have his company for the next 7 hours.  I prefer to run alone, but this was where I started to need help (not least because I’m really afraid of the dark).  Steve was one of the inspirations behind the move to running daft distances.  I remember the blurred photo cropping up on Facebook of him finishing London to Brighton and this planted the first seeds of our Centurion adventure.  I meant a lot to have him with me through the night.

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It was still light when we arrived in Otford and the crew for all 3 runners were there.

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That lovely runnable downhill section was soon replaced with a huge hill up to the top of the downs again.  Then it’s fields, kissing gate after bloody kissing gate and tree roots.  This is why we run on trails.  Not exactly what was needed after 50 or 60 miles, but wonderful nonetheless.

Now, most trail races have a story about poo (well mine do anyway).  But all ultras do.  Giving birth to a beast half way up Firle Beacon on the South Downs Way 100, which was the most scenic poo ever.  The urgent evacuation on the banks of the Thames on the A100, not quite so scenic and definitely not pleasant.  The NDW100 poo came at the Holly Hill aid station (65.6 miles).  That far without a poo break on my diet was a minor miracle for a start.  Steve and I sat on chairs in the aid station and I remember saying to him ‘I could really do with a dump’ and like a mirage out of nowhere appeared a child next to me and he uttered the life saving words ‘I’ve got some toilet paper if you want t borrow some’.  What a sweetheart.  In the middle of the night and in the middle of nowhere he was helping out runners with impending bowel activity.  So, off I trotted into the woods to find some privacy.  This is not an easy endeavour 12 hours into a race.  You’re just happy that everything lands on the floor and not on your legs or trainers.  So, aid stop completed, we carried on towards Bluebell Hill.

About 70 miles in, things took a turn for the worst.  It was the first time that I had ever really felt ill on a 100 miler.  It really did feel like I was going to be sick, so the section into the crew stop at Nashenden Farm Lane did take a while.  Seeing the crew point was pretty funny.  Early morning, pitch black apart from some head torches.  Lots of runners being lovingly tended to in the boots of cars or in camper vans at the side of a motorway.  I got some food and drink inside me and felt much better.  It was then a quick fartlek across the Medway bridge, before the deceptively long climb up Bluebell Hill.

It was a strange climb for 2 reasons.  We found a guy trying to sleep at the side of the path.  I think everyone who went past must have woken him up to check that he was OK.

Then, when we reached the top, this crazy thing showed up in the head lights.  What the f*ck was that all about?  A headless miniature Santa doll.

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If I’d been on my own, that last mile into the aid station would have been sub 4 minutes.  It scared the crap out of me.  I hate the dark and this did not help at all.  A very good job that Steve was there as reassurance.

Anyway, the aid station at the top of Bluebell Hill was a peaceful place.  It seemed calm with people getting ready for the end of the night and pulling themselves together to tackle the last quarter of the race.  Everyone seemed to be in control and knew what they were doing.  I said goodbye to Steve and Andrew took over pacing/guiding/encouraging duties.

We tackle the hills and steps, then out of the dead of the night there is a light in the distance, a bridge over the road and the oasis that is the Detling Aid Station.  It’s a bit of a shock to be honest.  The only lights we had seen for a while were the spots on the floor from our head torches, so the Hawaiian theme and spinning disco balls took a little getting used to, but this says everything about the Centurion volunteers.  The lengths they go to to make you happy, comfortable, fed and watered never ceases to amaze.

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We knew that there was a tough time ahead, about 4 or 5 miles I think, but the return to the steps up and down was worse than I’d remembered from the trial run.  Something to do with the 82 miles in our legs probably.  At this stage, my pacer, Andrew, was priceless.  He encouraged me up the hills and once the sun had come up, got me fartleking again along the undulations at the top of the downs.  He also stopped me worrying about cut off.  With hindsight, it was never an issue, but a stern ‘that’s my problem to worry about, not yours’ convinced me to leave that side of things in his more than capable hands.

I was very lucky to have Andrew with me.  He was a natural choice to ask to get me home on the tougher stage of any Centurion 100 race.  He’s calm and knows what he’s doing.

At the Dirty Habit pub, we knew that the worst of the hills were over and from now on it was rolling roads and tracks for most of the way.  We did the run/walk all the way to mile 99 where we said goodbye to the North Downs Way, just after the aid station at Dunn Street.

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At this aid station we saw something we had seen often before, but it is still great to see.  Without the volunteer, one of the runners there would have dropped.  He was almost in tears and in a lot of pain.  It had taken him an hour to do the previous mile.  Great care was taken with him, salt tablets administered and liquids taken on board.  As we left, I still wasn’t sure that he’d make it, but as we sat resting at the finish line, he hobbled around the track and took the buckle home with him.  Amazing.

The last 3 miles along the road to the stadium is not that nice.  We walked most of it.  Until the track obviously, when Nick and I found our running feet again.  What a feeling.  8 months of hard work and we were finishing together.  She is my training partner and I’m sure we wouldn’t start these races without the encouragement of each other.  When we don’t feel like training, we force each other out.  Finishing together is so special.

The initial view from the back saw us finish 150th out of the 279 starters in just over 28 and a half hours.

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Wearing identical tops was not deliberate by the way.

This is our thing, our escape, our obsession.  3 out of 4 Centurions 100’s complete.  The joy or sharing it with everyone is amazing.  This one was as much mental as physical, so the role played by our crew and pacers was even more important.  3 of us started, but 12 of us finished.  Our 6 pacers plus Sue, Mark and Francecsa, who drove certainly own at chunk on these buckles.

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I do love the North Downs Way.  I got to know it pretty well during the Summer of 2019.  Whenever we’re up on the SDW now, there is always a glance north with fond memories.  It is so different to the SDW.  For me, this makes the SDW100 look like a walk in the park.

Now it’s only the Thames Path 100 to go and as I write this during the COVID-19 lock down, who knows when that will be.  Hopefully, the answer to that is now the 8th August 2020.

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Until then, thank you Centurion.  These memories will never fade.

Neil.

#poweredbyplants

 

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