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.


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.


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.


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).


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.

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.


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.


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




Centurion Autumn 100

Tackling a 100 mile race with such poor preparation may not have been the greatest idea I have ever had, but on Friday morning we had packed and got the train to Goring on Thames, base for the Centurion Autumn 100.

We had booked the large dormitory at the YHA in Streatley for Friday and Saturday night.  Friday night for the runners and Saturday night for the pacers and supporters.

Having checked in, we grabbed some nice food and a beer in the Bull Inn (they offer a nice selection of plant based food), before a stroll into Goring to walk off the food and grab another beer, before heading back to the YHA for an early night.

After a decent sleep we had breakfast at the YHA with other runners who’d had the same idea as us, completed the final prep and headed to the Village Hall in Goring for check in.


Now, the weather forecast for Saturday was hot and dry with a massive change overnight around 4am, with heavy rain arriving.  We hadn’t expected it to throw it down on Saturday morning, but luckily it stopped before the 10am race start.

Being there before 9am meant that mandatory kit check was quick, as was number collection.  With final changes to the kit bag done and back pack loaded for the first stage, we were ready for James’ pre-race brief.

The brief is now quite familiar, but there is some hugely important information in there about weather and safety (he was spot on).  As tradition has it, ‘Who is running their first Centurion race? is asked.  Hands raised.  Big round of applause.  ‘Who is running their first 100 miler?’  ‘Who is completing the 100 mile Grand Slam (all 4 Centurion 100 milers)?’  Finally ‘Who is running their 196th (I think it was 196) 100 miler?’  That is crazy.  I had a good chat with this lady, Sandra Brown, during the race and at the end.  What a privilege to be on the start line with such a pioneer.


The A100 consists of 4 x 25 mile spurs, each being an out and back.  Stages 1 and 4 are along the Thames Path and stages 2 and 3 are along Ridgeway.

The advice for stage 1 was not to go out too quickly.  It’s flat and the temptation is to get ahead of schedule.  We were determined not to do this.  But we did.  To be fair, it was totally by accident.  We had set the Suunto’s to the 100 hour battery life, which makes them less accurate.  However, the first 12.5 miles only measured 10.5 miles, so although we were at the desired pace according to the watch, we were miles ahead of schedule, over 20 minutes.  We got there in 2 hours 20 mins.  Nick and I had a chat and we decided to reign it in.  It was so hot, we had to slow down.  And we did.


The return to Goring was in 2 hours 40 mins, meaning a first 25 mile split of 5 hours.  In front of schedule, but it turned out to be OK, as I spent ages taping a hot spot on the underside on my foot.  A lesson learned from previous races.  Time spent early on sorting this kind of thing out, can save a lot of pain later.  We spent 20 minutes in the Village Hall at the end of the first stage, but I think it was well spent.


Stage 2 was out on Ridgeway.  I had thought that it would be hilly pretty quickly, but no.  It must have been around 4 miles of pretty flat riverside running before we hit the hills.  The aid station on stage 2 is after 4 miles at North Stoke, so the second half of the outbound section is really long to the turn around point at Swyncombe.  It is a great section, although I took very few pictures, as we were concentrating on not falling down the badger holes or tripping over the tree roots.


It was getting dark as we approached the turn around point after 37.5 miles and 8 and a quarter hours.  This was more like the pace that we’d planned.  This is where it started to get tough.  The slightly dodgy technical section on the way out was now really tricky in the dark.  Having to check for haz tape to keep going in the right direction while also not falling over (Nick failed on the second point) was both time consuming and slowed us down.  It was a treat to see the aid station at North Stoke on the way back, signalling only 4 miles until we got back to Goring, the half way point and the company of our pacers.  We arrived back at the Village Hall in 11 and a half hours, a bit slower than we’d hoped, but still in good spirits, good shape, still eating and new found energy from our pacers, Jay and Jill.

Stage 3 is the hilliest of all 4 stages and I had done it before, as pacer for Philippe in 2016.  So, I knew what was coming.  Nothing to be scared of, but plenty to slow you down after 50 miles.  We were still running and going well.  Walking up the hills and running a lot of the flat and downhill.  Ahead of time it started to rain in spells and the wind got up, which wasn’t in the plan, but everything was good.  We reached the turn around point at Chain Hill in just over 15 hours, pretty much bang on schedule and made our way back along Ridgeway to Goring.

Every credit to the volunteers at those aid station on stage 3 in the middle of the night.  There was little or no protection from the wind and rain and they were amazing.


During his race brief James had warned that the rain would really start at 4am and that was pretty much spot on.  That’s when it started and it didn’t stop.  For 8 hours.  We came back to the large bump that signalled the end of the trail section of the third stage and hit the 3 or so miles on road back to Goring.  That first section on the road back to the main road seemed to go on forever.  Much longer than on the way out.  Nick and Jill were going well and caught up with us just as we hit the main road.  The rain intensified and we quickly made progress downhill back to Goring to prepare for stage 4, miles 75 to the end.

While we had been out in the darkness, the pacers and supporters had been making the most of the YHA room that we’d hired for the night as well.  Looks proper cosy in there.  These people are brilliant.


So there were about 2 hours of darkness left before the sun came up and we were really looking forward to it.  Even though we weren’t going to see the sun, having to concentrate less on trying to see where you’re going was going to be a blessing.

Now, there were some decisions to make in the village hall.  The main one being footwear.  Due to the injury, I hadn’t bothered replacing my trail shoes, as quite frankly, I hadn’t thought I’d need any.  I had thought even less that I’d be sitting at the 75 mile point regretting not having replaced them.  There were 2 options.  Firstly, stick with the same road shoes and slide everywhere and be comfortable in the most comfy shoe I’ve ever had.  Secondly, change to the shoes with a little more grip, but less cushioning.  Stupidly, it turns out, I went for the latter.  They didn’t give me enough grip, so I still slipped everywhere and there were more hard sections than I’d expected, so every step on the concrete and the hard paths in the Innov-8’s was painful.

It soon become all too obvious that my waterproof was only waterproof in certain conditions.  After 2 hours in a downpour I was soaking and frozen.  The base layer helped, but this was not good.  My hands were cold and my gloves were sodden.  My hat was drenched and I started to shake.  As we headed through the housing estate before Reading I reached a low.  It was the first time that I considered that I might not make it.  I was moving slowly, my feet were hurting (stupid trainer decision) and I was shaking.  I was desperate to get to the turn around point, but it was 8.5 miles before the aid station and that a long way when you’re running less and less.

There were huge puddles everywhere and on the towpath there was a 6 inch stream coming down off the railway line into the Thames.  There was no point in trying to keep your feet dry.  In fact, it was impossible to avoid the stream, so I decided to grin and bear it and run straight through the water.

The path to the turn around point seems to go on forever.  I knew this.  I had been warned, but the low continued.  We arrived at the aid station and Nick was sitting there shaking.  We were both in the same boat.  I was more worried about her to be honest.  Steph, her pacer, got her into a new base layer and this, couple with a lot of coffee, warmed her up and got her going again.  I changed base layer, drink coffee and we left Reading together.

It was now destination Goring / destination buckle.

Nick soon dropped me.  She found some extra energy and running was keeping her warm.  The rain kept coming down and I got cold again.  I think that I may have been saved by wearing a bin bag from the last aid station at Whitchurch.  I looked daft, but it really warmed me up.  Only 4 miles to go and nothing (apart from falling over) was going to stop me now.

I hadn’t thought about time for a long while now.  I wasn’t going to get timed out and the only goal was getting home safely.  However, as we got closer to home, a sub 26 hour finish was in sight.  That was the A goal, but not that important in the grand scheme of things.  It suddenly dawned on me as we came onto the path on the last 200m of the river section that I could do it.  From somewhere I mustered a bizarre ‘sprint’ finish.  The emotion of it all got to me and I couldn’t help but leg it for the last 400m.  I’m not sure that I pick my knees up that high at the end of the parkrun.

25 hours 54 minutes and 30 seconds after we started, I crossed the finish line.  This was unbelievable.  I hadn’t even been able to walk properly for around 3 months of the year and it was on the back of around 8 weeks of training.  There were inevitable tears (and they weren’t just from the pain of having nipple tape removed).

And here we are.  Happy, dry and warm.


When I got in, Nick had been there for 20+ minutes.  She was covered in clothes, hats and blankets, as well as holding 2 cups of coffee.  The volunteers were amazing in getting her body temperature back up and she was amazing to have gone round in just over 25 and a half hours.

I think that it’s obvious from this experience, much more than the SDW100, is that the psychological strength needed to complete this was as important as the physical.  I had around 8 weeks of real training.  This was an hour long hill reps session, a long run at the weekend (between 21 and 31 miles) and 1 other session each week.  I limited it to this through fear of further injury and not getting to the start line.  I would definitely advise anyone thinking of attempting this kind of distance to read about or speak to someone with experience of dealing with this distance.  Keeping positive is so important and being positive over 26 hour hours isn’t that easy, especially when you’re s cold and wet.

So, that’s 2 of the Centurion 100 milers down and 2 to go.  It’s not the Grand Slam (all 4 in 1 year), but we’ll do them all.  In 4 years.  North Downs Way, then Thames Path.  We’ve got a 100% success rate so far, which isn’t bad.

We can’t thank everyone enough.  James, Nici and all of the Centurion crew.  We were so well looked after.  From the first home to the person who squeezes under cut off, we’re all just as important and that’s a special feeling.

We shared something with our pacers that is there forever.  It’s easy to say that we wouldn’t have finished without Jay, Jill, Simon and Steph, but it’s true.  Their company, encouragement and care will never be forgotten.  Part of that medal belongs to them.

And to Philippe and Francesca, who came straight from Gatwick taking a detour on the way home from their holiday (a 100 mile / 18 hour detour) and Sarah, who came up with Simon straight from a party, the boost you gave us at Reading after mile 91 was an amazing feeling.

And finally, a huge thanks to my training partner, best friend and wifey.  We did it after a tough, shitty year.  And now there are loads more adventures in the diary for 2019.  Woo hoo.

The 2 buckles sit there beside our bed with our wedding photo to give me strength when anxiety bites.  If I can get through those last 25 miles of the A100, I can get through anything 🙂

Oh, and still powered by plants, mainly fruit, nuts, Gu gels, Trailwind, tomatoes, crisps and jam/peanut butter sandwiches.

Take care and I hope you enjoyed reading this, Neil.


South Downs Way 50

If we were to have a bucket list of races, the South Downs Way 50 would be on it.  It’s on our own turf, it’s a Centurion event and the original ultra runners in our club put this race on the map.

The build up has been a lot of back to back runs of around 2 hours and a sequence of marathons on consecutive weekends.  I have to say that both Nick and I were in a pretty good place (apart from the odd wobble).

The race takes you from the Hill Barn Rec in Worthing to join the South Downs Way around Chanctonbury Ring and then over to Eastbourne along the SDW, with a little tour in Eastbourne to find the finish.

There are many hills between the start and the finish.  5700 feet of climb to be precise.

SDW50 2
Race day came round and the sun came out to play.  Not as strong as for the Brighton Marathon on the following day, but strong enough to cause problems (I’m burnt on the back of my legs, but luckily nowhere else).


The first section of the race up to Chanctonbury takes in Cissbury Ring with 2 long climbs and a lovely long downhill section.  I started eating right from the off.  Nuts, dried fruit, Nakd bars and Tailwind.  I walked the big climbs and made the most of gravity when it was on our side.  I am finding it a little disappointing that the steep, rutted chalk path up to Cissbury Ring has been repaired and made much easier to climb.


After Chanctonbury, it is almost all downhill to the first aid station at Botolph’s after 11.2 miles.  As with all Centurion aid stations, they are full laden with everything that you could wish for and this year they included Tailwind as well.


After Botolph’s comes Truleigh Hill.  It’s horrid.  There’s no other way to describe it.  It’s steep and pretty long and then when you get to what you think is the top, it climbs less sharply for about another mile.


After the Youth Hostel at the top of Truleigh Hill, there is a quick descent into the valley before the climb back up to Devil’s Dyke, where there were a lot of supporters.


I love Devil’s Dyke.  It’s where I first took my folks out when they visited me after my move to Brighton.  Being from the flat lands of Lincolnshire, it felt so novel to have these hills on the doorstep, and the thrill of being next to the South Downs has never worn off.

My Mum has just got her first smart phone (I’m not sure she knows how to use it), so I’m making the most of being able to send her pictures.  I indulged myself in this selfie and sent it off to her.


After Devil’s Dyke, there is a lovely descent into Saddlescombe Farm for aid station #2 at 16.6 miles.

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Jon Lavis was out on course taking amazing photographs as usual and managed to catch me trying to get a peanut butter wrap down me.  This thing stuck to the inside of my mouth for the next 10 minutes.  Peanut butter with jam next time.  Rookie error.

So, from Saddlescombe Farm, you climb Newtimber Hill, descend into Pyecombe and then climb through the golf course towards the Jack and Jill windmills, where there were lots of amazing supporters.


I was now on home turf.  You can see the big yew tree in our front garden from the section between the windmills and Ditchling Beacon.  I know this section to the end very well.  Not sure if that’s a good thing or not.

It was around this point that I started to notice the heat more.  It was early afternoon, so no surprise really.

There are a few ups and downs between the windmills (namely Ditchling Deacon, which is the highest point on the SDW) and the right turn at Black Cap.


Then it’s downhill all the way……………………to the next climb.  And that next climb is a killer.  It’s not long, but it’s very steep through the woods before the 3rd aid station at Housedean Farm at 26.6 miles.

This is just over half way through and the heat was starting to hurt.  I had planned to have my finishing time start with a ’10’ and I got to half way in exactly 5 hours.  I had time in hand and I was going to need it.  After the Housedean Farm aid station there is a long climb.  It’s long walk.  It’s hard not to get frustrated by it, but there’s no chance of running it and it’s all part of the process.


The next real landmark is the Yellow Brick Road.  It’s neither yellow or brick, but it’s lovely.  It’s a long downhill towards the next aid station at Southease at 33.9 miles.

At the end of the Yellow Brick Road there is a very steep downhill (not good for achy knees) and a horrible dusty track before the aid station.

Southease aid station is great.  Well manned, lots of supporters.  I even had Philippe apply new sun block for me.

This is the calm before the storm though.  For me, this is the toughest part of the course. Recently friends have described this as the graveyard on the South Downs Way 100 and I can see why.  For me, it’s not just the length and extent of the climb.  It is long and steep in places.  The issue is that it keeps going up to Firle Beacon and then, after you descend into Bo Peep you have to climb back out again.  This section seems to go on for ages.  I think it probably did though to be honest.  Lots of walking.

As you can see from this photo taken by Jon, I wasn’t alone in walking out of Bo Peep.

This was a bit of a low point, and Jon managed to catch my mood perfectly.

From here until the end, I’m a lot happier.  It is 11 miles.  There are 2 huge hills and a tricky descent, but it is the home stretch.

The hills out of the aid stations are tough and the terrain presents you with trip hazards.  The countryside is beautiful and for some reason, I even managed to run about 25% of the climb out of Jevington.


When you reach the top of the Jevington hill, you have to tackle the tricky descent into Eastbourne.  It is around 2km down.  After about a minute I could hear someone screaming in front of me.  I saw a runner lying across the path.  My initial thoughts were ‘oh god, I hope he’s not badly hurt.’  As I approached, I saw his feet were pointing in the same direction, which is a good sign.  It was cramp.  I lifted his leg, push his foot back, helped him to his feet and he was off.  Phew.

The section along the streets in Eastbourne (about 2km) to the finish went by quickly. Turning the corner onto the track was amazing.  There were lots of supporters.  300m to the finish and my medal was waiting for me, presented by the ultra running legend that is Mimi Anderson.

I popped inside quickly to put some more clothes on and to get a hot drink before coming out to wait for Nick.

And all of a sudden, there she was.  I didn’t even have time to start my coffee.  She’d been between 5 and 10 minutes behind me all the way.  What an amazing performance.  So so proud of her.

We got there and it was still light.  Both under 11 hours.  And those medals are almost big enough to eat your dinner off.

So, what happened to me?  Well time-wise I did what I wanted to.  I wanted it to start with a ’10’ and it did.  10 hours 43 minutes and 29 seconds to be precise.  If I’m honest with myself, I wanted to be around 10 and a half hours, but there you go.

This shows big improvement on last year.  I finished my first 50, the Endure 50, which was mainly flat in 10 hours 45 minutes.  The Chiltern Wonderland 50, which has a similar amount of climb took me 11 hours 15 minutes, so the SDW50 was an improvement of over 30 minutes.

What did I learn?

I’m not good in the heat.  Well, I knew that already, but this just proved it.  I wasn’t alone. I did manage to keep most of me burn-free apart from the backs of my legs, where I didn’t think to slap the sun block.

I know now that I really have an issue with the climbs to Firle and Bo Peep.  I have got to get over that.  This is going to be one of the challenges for my crew and pacer on the SDW100.  Get me out of Southease and over to Alfriston.

I got cramps in my calves.  Not a big issue.  A stretch every 10 minutes or so sorted it out, but this is the first time in ages that I’ve had cramps.  I took the salt tabs as usual, along with electrolytes.  Maybe it was the heat?  Maybe it was a one off?  At least I was able to resolve it with a simple calf stretch and when it went away it didn’t stop me from running.

I got stomach cramps.  The only thing I did differently to usual was drinking fizzy coke. Maybe that was daft?  No more fizzy coke.  As I was struggling with eating and it was really hot, fizzy coke really did seem like a pleasant way to get energy in.

I’m going to need baby wipes for the 100.  Sticky fingers between aid stations and crew points is really going to get on my nerves.

I also learnt that that wife of mine is a bloody legend (she was a non-runner 5 years ago).  She’s getting better and better. She was only 7 minutes behind me at the end.  Seeing her name above mine on the finish list would please quite a few people for sure and I’m coming round to that idea more and more.  The thing is, I don’t care if she gets home before me on the SDW100.  I just want to see her with that buckle.

Finally, there is a serious realisation that 100 miles is a long way.  No shit Sherlock. Obviously it’s a long way.  Tagging another 50 onto the back of this is really daunting. Both of us spoke about this on Sunday and doubts did surface over whether we’re capable of doing it.  Now that a little time has passed, we have regained a bit of the positivity.  The first 50 will be slower (by around 90 minutes).  We will have crew with us with food and support.  And finally, the only time pressure is 30 hours.  That’s the only thing that matters.

There are lots of thank you’s.  To James and the Centurion Team.  Amazing.  You set the standard that other have to try to match.  The volunteers were incredible.  Even at the early aid stations when lots of people arrived at the same time, you were quick, efficient and always lovely.  Thank you so much.

To the supporters, you were great.  So touched that so many were out on course, especially the Burgess Hill Runners who popped up all over the place.

To my fellow runners, thank you for your company.  Well done to every one of you.

To Nick, thank you for being my training partner and the most important person in the world.  If you ever beat me I’m never speaking to you again 🙂

To the South Downs Way, thank you for being there and being so beautiful.

The next time we will see the Centurion team is while crewing and pacing for Philippe at the TP100 in a few weeks.  After that’s it’s the start line for the big one.

In the meantime, have fun and take care.


please be kind to all animals #fuelledbyplants

(photos courtesy of Jon Lavis, Centurion Running and Stuart March)

Chiltern Wonderland 50 – Centurion Running

Centurion Running events have taken on iconic status in the Dawson household over the past few years.  Firstly, because the ultra pioneers in our club (Jan, Paul, Darren and Philippe to name just a few) had all completed a Centurion event and secondly, the South Downs Way 50 and 100 are run over the national trail that we love so much.

Nick has volunteered at the SDW 50 and 100 and we have supported, taken photos and crewed on the both events.

So, everything pointed towards doing the SDW50 and 100 in 2017.  However, the Chiltern Wonderland 50 popped up beforehand, with the chance of completing the inaugural event through some wonderful countryside.

Training had gone well.  A few marathons, including a back to back weekend and the stomach has been quiet for some time now.  In the run up to the race I wasn’t my usual ‘excited like a kid in a sweet shop’ self, which meant that I was sleeping better and eating well, which was all very positive.  The weather in the lead up to the race was incredible.  In the space of 3 days, we had gone from 35 degrees baking heat to flooding after torrential downpours.  Race day was perfect, much cooler, cloudy and only a little drizzle.

We stayed in Reading overnight at a Premier Inn to leave a 20 minute drive to the start.  Compulsory kit check, number collection and bag drop were quick.  We had time for a few last minute kit adjustments before the race brief and the short walk to the start.

My plan was to get to the half way check point (25.8 miles) in 5 hours and then do the second half in around 6 hours with 11 hours being the ultimate goal.  It’s pretty difficult to know exactly what to plan given that you don’t know the course and it was the inaugural event.

So, off we go.  The first 6km are mostly along the Thames and relatively flat.  The aim at this stage is to go as slow as I can.  It’s definitely a marathon (well nearly 2), not a sprint.


There are a few things that I am trying to put right with my game plan and one of them came up pretty early.  It was cool at the start, so I set off with a base layer on.  5 miles in, I was boiling.  I was faced with a decision.  Stop and take it off and lose 3 minutes or so, or wait until the first check point at 10 miles and get increasingly hot, sweat lots more and potentially cause issues later in the race.  It’s not rocket science, but previously I would have waited until the aid station.  These issues may seem minor, but getting over the hurdle of fixing a problem and forgetting about losing a bit of time is really important when you’re going to be on your feet for 11 hours + (or up to 30 hours on a 100 miler).  Similar issue to Nick refusing to stop to remove a stone from her shoe on the recent Lunar-tic marathon.  I did stop and remove the base layer.


The first hill comes at 6km.  It is about 700m long and is around 12%.  A little warm up for what lies ahead.  The bumps in the road continue, as does the beautiful countryside, including the lovely Crowsley Park and Pissen Wood.

I developed a problem early on in the race.  Much too early.  At around 10 miles I started to get cramps in my right calf.  I seldom cramp and I certainly don’t get cramps this early.  With 40 miles to go there were 2 really important things to do.  Firstly, don’t panic and let it worry me or get me down.  Secondly, deal with it and try to make it go away.  I stopped every 5 minutes or so to stretch it out and I kept up the intake of water, salt tablets and electrolytes.  This lasted for about 90 minutes, but it slowly eased.

The calf cramps were replaced with ‘washing machine stomach’.  It’s the only way to describe it.  Gurgling belly and increasingly worrying wind.  I was running and chatting with a young lady at the time.  I apologised to begin with, but then gave up on that, offering a blanket apology for my arse noises.

I knew that there were some serious hills in the middle of the race.  There were 5 really testing sections, 4 leading up to the aid station at half way and 1 afterwards.  Below are the profile maps.  There are 2, as I used 2 watches.


The first one is 2km long and the gradient between 5% and 15% through Warburg Nature Reserve.  The second one goes through Stonor Park for 2km with a total climb of more than 100m.  The third one is shorter at about 500m, but the gradient gets up to 25% at times to Cobstone Mill (location for filming for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in 1967).  The fourth one goes through Twigside Bottom and leads up to the aid station and is another 2km with gradients up around 14% towards the end.  The final hill of the 5 was another 100m climb.


The aid station at Ibstone was very welcome for 2 reasons.  First of all, it was just over half way.  The countdown had begun.  Secondly, the second half of the course was easier than the first half (easier not easy).


I reached the half way aid station at 5 hours 17 minutes.  That was 17 minutes slower than hoped, but good going, given the hills.

I ate well in the aid station, filled up with water and electrolyte tabs again and headed off uphill, through another wooded section before I had to quickly disappear into the woods and evacuate my ‘washing machine’ stomach.  I have never had this issue before.  Violent diarrhoea in the middle of nowhere is not funny.  But there we go, another thing successfully dealt with.  Onwards and upwards.

The second half of the race was easier, but certainly not easy.  There were several sections where up hills lead steeply into wooded areas, which became increasingly tough as the legs got more tired and the light began to fail.

Concentration levels had to increase as the conditions became more difficult.  There were sections with serious camber, steep down hills and one area that passed through a badger set with large and slightly hidden holes.  Towards the end, we ran through woods in the dark.  The head torch helped, but it is still tough to concentrate on the way ahead, flint on the floor, ruts/tree roots in the path and moveable objects like dead branches and brambles.

There were a lot more gradual down hills in the second half of the race.  They were very welcome as the body began to tire.   Slowly but surely, the miles were ticked off and we arrived back in Goring, where we had started.  With about half a mile to go, there were several groups of people cheering us on and the finish line was in sight.

I finished in 11 hours 15 minutes, so the second half was quicker than planned.  I was 15 minutes outside the A target time.  I don’t really care though.  This was a fantastic learning curve and a wonderful experience.


So, apart from being an experience in itself, the CW50 is part of the learning process, which will hopefully culminate in the SDW100 next year.  So, what did I learn?

Unexpected things can go wrong.  Early cramps and dodgy runny poo have never happened before, but I dealt with them and got on with it.  When you’re out for 11 to 30 hours, a lot can go wrong, but there is a lot of time for it to get better as well.  Don’t panic and deal with it logically.

I love jam sandwiches.  Well, I love jam sandwiches in the second half of a 50 mile race.  I will probably not touch them again until the next race, but it’s good to know.  Food is still an issue.  I was still eating well even at the last aid station.  However, who knows what’s going to happen from 50 to 100 miles.  Maybe jam (and peanut butter?) sandwiches are the way forward.

I certainly can pace properly.  I keep getting it right, which is the huge improvement that I have made this year.  I was pretty close to the target times for both halves of the race and I started off slowly.

Organising your kit makes things so much easier.  We bought some small waterproof bags.  I carried 2 with me on the race.  One kept my spare kit dry (jacket, change of top and spare socks) and the other had my medical supplies and food in.  I also had another which didn’t go with me on the race.  That had all health and sanitary products in that I didn’t need during the race.  This is a simple small win, but knowing where everything is means that you are more relaxed and you don’t forget anything important.


Centurion stage fantastic races.  There is a different feel to other trail races I have done recently, although having just done a relay carrying a squeaky rubber chicken, that’s not a surprise.  They are very professional and nothing is left to chance.  You can’t when people are out on course for so long.  The marking out on the course was perfect.  I got lost once and only lost about 5 minutes (don’t pay more attention to your mobile phone than the arrow signs).  If anyone is looking for a tough 50 mile trail event next year, you will not be disappointed if you have a go at this.

Finally, it has become even more evident that 100 miles is a very long way and we have a lot of work to do to get to the level required to complete that distance.  In the 24 hours after the race, both Nick and I expressed doubts about our ability to complete the SDW100.  I am sure that we are not alone in going through this immediately after a tough day on the trails.  However, that has now passed and the 9 month plan is now being written, races being booked and goals being set.

I would like to thank James and the Centurion Team for all of their hard work.  Everything was perfect.  My first Centurion event lived up to everything that I had hoped it would be.  Can’t wait for next year.  Special thanks to the young man at the final aid station for giving us all extra power with his sign.


Next is the Bovington Marathon with White Star Running in December (unless I can find another in the meantime).

Have fun, Neil.


South Downs Way 100 – Crewing and pacing

I have followed the Centurion events over the past few years.  It’s always been a temptation to take part.  Nick and I went up to support at mile 60 on the North Downs Way 100 last year and I have followed the times of people I know on the very impressive live updates website.

This weekend our involvement took on a greater significance.  Nick and I were to crew and pace for first time 100 miler and Burgess Hill Runners very own Philippe Ecaille.

So, here’s the deal.  We meet him at half way (well 51 miles in if we’re going to be totally accurate) and then Nick does the 21 miles to Ditchling Beacon, then I take over for the 28 miles to the end.  We would also meet Philippe and the pacer at 7 crew stations between half way and the finish.

I have only been writing about my races.  The reason why I write is to remind me how things went, to look back fondly on achievements and also to help others when they decide if a race is suitable for them or not.

This is obviously totally different. The day (and night) (then day again) was all about Philippe and helping to get him to the finish line and to get him the sub 30 hours finishers buckle.

On the surface, the job of crewing for a runner looks easy.

  1. Get in car
  2. Drive car to checkpoint
  3. Get relevant stuff out of car
  4. Repeat

Well it soon became obvious that it’s much more than that.

First of all, you can’t miss your runner.  The implications are terrible.  The runner will miss out on what they need and the mental effect of not seeing you would be pretty bad.  So, taking this into account, we arrive at Chantry Post (51 miles) about 2 hours before Philippe arrives.  Well, you can’t be too careful can you?  We were a bit too early and he was a little slower than we’d expect.  So, what to do for 2 hours?  Cheer the runners through, talk to other crew and supporters and eat, that’s what.

The scene at mile 51 is bizarre.  It’s lovely for a start.  It’s an isolated car park and that’s it.  There is a great view west from the car park and you can see runners coming down from around a mile away.



It’s a bizarre experience. It’s over half way. That’s a great thing. But there’s still 49 miles left. That’s not so good. Some people look ok, some are not so good. Some people can hardly muster the energy to thank you for the support. It’s not great that there’s an uphill section out of the car park, which does nothing for their sense of humour.

I can only equate the state of the runners to mile 23 of a mass participation marathon. There is a huge range of physical and mental states.  Some fine, big smiles, some forcing smiles, some talk, some don’t and some look like they’re already on the march of the dead. The difference between this and mile 23 of the Brighton Marathon, for example, is that they’ve still got 2 back to back marathons to go.

So our man arrives. He’s a bit behind schedule, but he’d suffered with the heat early on and had a few blisters. We had been pretty concerned for him, but he was happy to see us and was keen to move on.


So, off they went towards Botolphs and I jumped into the car onto the next crewing area.  It’s 9 miles for the runners and a 15 minute driver for me.  He’s going at around 17 minute miles and he’s got to change clothes at the bag drop at Washington, so I’ve got nearly 3 hours to kill. Luckily, there’s a game of football on the radio, fellow crew to talk to, runners to cheer on and food to eat.

The view from Botolphs village back toward Chanctonbury Ring is lovely, especially at dusk.



They arrive at 61 miles and he looks no different from 10 miles ago.  That’s good.  He’s eating well and drinking as well.  They don’t hang about and head off towards Truleigh Hill.  That’s going to be a tester.


Next stop Devil’s Dyke. It’s only 5 more miles for the runners, but they’re tough. The sun is going down and the temperature is starting to drop.

The view back from Devil’s Dyke is fantastic and as the sun goes down we could see the head lamps of the runners winding their way towards us.  I had started to get to know some of the crews who were there and we’d actually run quite a few of the same races, so time actually flew by.


They were out there somewhere. Each time a set of headlamps got close, each of the crews were hoping that it was their runner.

And finally mine arrived.


It was now getting really cold and I was glad that I made the last minute decision to throw in lots of really warm clothes.

They hardly stopped at Devil’s Dyke. Straight over the road, down the hill, over Newtimber Hill, through Pyecombe, past the Jack and Jill windmills and over to Ditchling Beacon (the highest point on the South Downs Way), where I was waiting to take over the pacing duties.


I don’t like the dark, by the way. When I was younger, my mates used to walk me home from the pub. It’s got a bit better, but I’m still not comfortable with it.  I was looking forward to getting out there and conquering this fear. Luckily, I had stopped at a petrol station on the way to make sure that everything was were it should be in the car, as it was so dark up there.

They arrived at around 1 am.  I had expected to be away from there earlier, but the schedule had changed.  So, as my time crewing came to an end, my time as pacer began.

I was a bit nervous about it.  How do I deal with it?  Will I talk too much?  I usually do.  Will I just babble on like a nervous teenager on a first date?  Well, it appears that I did, for a start at least, but there you go.  That’s no worse than pointing your head lamp into the eyes of the runners.  Oh yeah, I did that as well (but only to start with).

The plan was to walk all the way from here. I had to get my head round that to start with. It was going to be pushing 10 hours, but the most important thing was that sub 30 hour medal.  That’s all that mattered now.

So off we went.  Nick had a 30 minute drive and we were going to take around 4 hours to get to Southease, which was the next crew station.


I have to say that I really loved this. There is an amazing sense of liberation of being out in the countryside in the middle of the night with next to no-one around.  We went through fields of sheep and cows who were fast asleep. Well, they were until we woke them up (the mixture of my voice and shining headlamps into their faces saw to that).

It’s a bizarre feeling running or walking in the dark.  Even though we know the area well, the hills felt less steep in the dark and it was also really easy to get disorientated.

Navigation was really easy.  There was only one section where we were concerned.  We hadn’t seen any of the reassuring haz tape for a while and the half a dozen of us who were all close to each other had a bit of a moment.  It was a worry for me and I’d only done 10 miles.  Getting lost and having to retrace your steps at 80 miles + would be a disaster.

I offered to run off and check for the next sign that we were on the right course to save the runners legs.  We were fine.  Phew.  I think that the runners around us thought I was mental.  I was holding the gate open for all of them then running back to the front of the group to be with Philippe.  Only when I mentioned that I wasn’t actually in the race did the penny drop.

The sun started to come up.  Well, actually, the first sign of the new day was the call of the skylarks.  They were up well before sunrise.  They were quite amazing.

We didn’t get the sunrise I was hoping for, as it was cloudy, but slowly and surely it got brighter.  I could feel Philippe’s mood improve with the arrival of the sun, which was great. This, along with the sound of the sky larks drowning out Philippe’s periodic soggy farts, made the world a better place.


At this stage Philippe was really struggling with the downhills.  We were much quicker up the hills, but were still on track for sub-30 with 20 minute miles.

Before the next aid station at Southease there was a really steep descent.  It was about half a mile, but our speed dropped dramatically as Philippe painfully made his way down the hill, mainly zig zagging so that he wasn’t heading vertically downwards.

Seeing Southease was great. This is the view as you approach the aid station. We know that hill well. It’s a bastard.


The aid station is bizarre.  There’s runners asleep on deck chairs.  I can’t imagine falling asleep on a run, whatever the distance.  I don’t know if these people got out of this aid station, but they all looked pretty content to be unconscious.  Talking of unconsciousness, Nick had managed to get a couple of hours sleep and was up and ready for us, full of enthusiasm, which is exactly what we needed.

It’s more or less a 200m climb up to Firle Beacon. It’s tough, but at 84 miles, it’s amazingly tough.

I let Philippe go before me and I stayed to have a few minutes with Nick before I left.  He was nearly at the top of the really steep bit when I caught him.  I was so impressed.  I had never doubted that he’d get to the end, but this proved it beyond all doubt.  He was powering up those hills.

So we go past Firle Beacon and onto Bo Peep.  Nick was at both locations with a smile and some encouragement.

Philippe was looking strong, although in a bit of pain.  I must admit that I was starting to hurt a bit.  I’d been walking for over 7 hours and my back was starting to feel it.



Bo Peep is the last time we’ll see Nick before the end.  Her crewing duties are over.

We head through Alfriston and Jevington. They are 2 beautiful villages and I haven’t run around that area before.  It’s all new territory for me.  And what wonderful territory it is.





It’s really hilly, but he’s loving going up the hills, so we’re making great progress.

But then there’s the sting in the tail (well the first of 2 stings in the tail).

Firstly you have to come off the South Downs Way. This comes in the form of a thin chalk path which is steep enough to be uncomfortable on an afternoon walk.  To put this at mile 98 is just cruel.  We got to the bottom. My athlete winced all the way down. It has to be said that he didn’t moan though. To be fair, he hardly moaned at all. Not sure I would have been the same.

So, sting number 2.  You have to get to the running track where the finish is, which is via a mile and a half lap of the Eastbourne ring road.  They’ve got a make the distance up to 100 miles and I guess that the fact that we were walking made it seem longer.

So there we are, we enter the track.  Nick’s there waiting for us and we do the lap of honor together.



He got home well under the 30 hour mark and our job as crew, pacers and support was done.

I’ve only known Philippe for around 18 months, but had grown to have lots of respect for him.  The way that he tackled the SDW100 and the heavy training schedule through some tough times is a mark of how strong he is.  Top work man.  Total respect.

There’s one more question that I’ve been asking myself for the past 12 months or so.  Will I do a 100 mile race?  At the moment, the answer is ‘no’.  However, I would love to do a Centurion race.  These people a brilliant.  So it’s either the SDW50 or NDW50 for me at some stage.

In short, crewing and pacing on this type of event is brilliant.  It’s not easy at all.  I’m broken today.  Totally shatter and really aching.  I can’t imagine how the runners are.

Take care folks.  Next for me, the Dorset Invader Marathon.

Much love, Neil.