Centurion North Downs Way 100
I’ve really been struggling to even get started on this report. It just feels too big still, and I feel too tired still. Plus, I haven’t really decided how I feel about the whole thing yet. I suppose I should just get on with it!
I entered this race as soon as it was announced, back in November last year. I love the North Downs Way trail, and I know lots of the trail really well having run on it before many times in training and in races, and as soon as I saw a new ultra along the trail, I knew I had to do it. It was also a few months after I finished London to Brighton and I was on the look out for a new challenge. I also recall that I was up late one evening, having consumed probably one or two glasses of wine too many when I entered. Indeed, the entry confirmation email I got arrived on Nov 16th 2010 at 11:19pm! This early entry made me the first person to enter the 100, and as a result I was allocated the race number ‘2’ (‘1’ went to someone who entered the 50 I think).
The option of switching back to the 50 was on my mind for months. It really wasn’t until I did the Kent 50 this July that I finally decided to do the 100. Believe it or not, I tend to be a bit cautious about races – I’ve never not finished a race and I don’t like to take on a challenge that I don’t think I’ll have a good chance of completing. The furthest I’d run in one go before this was 58 miles, and the step up to 100 seemed immense. Still, I felt like I knew what I was doing, and I had generous offers of support from Wendi, Dips and Mark.
Wendi picked up some of my kit on Thursday evening and I got the rest of my stuff ready on Friday. I was up at 4 on Saturday and on my way at around 4:45.. Too early for a McDonalds breakfast unfortunately (my pre-ultra meal of choice), so I had to make do with a microwaved Sainsbury’s sausage and egg roll. It was a very poor substitute. Just a twenty minute drive to the start in Farnham (see, so close to home – how could I not do this race?) and I parked up and headed into the school to register.
I joined the queue and saw Nicole sitting off to one side.. I was surprised to see her – she’s had a few attempts at 100 and had to pull out of each one with injury. I knew she wanted another bash at it, but didn’t realise she was doing this one.. After collecting my number I went over and said Hi to her and Allan and some other familiar faces. I nipped back to the car for my pack and arrived back as the race briefing was in full swing. I don’t think I missed anything, but it was great to see James (RD) looking calm. For his first race as RD, he’d certainly given himself a lot to do, and by all appearances he had everything well under control.
One of the things I love about doing these sorts of races is that whilst ultras are getting more and more popular (and there are more and more of them), it’s actually quite a small world. After the 5 minute walk to the start of the trail and the start of the race, I found myself chatting to someone doing the 50 (“are you Matt?”.. “yes, are you Gemma?”) as well as a bunch of others I knew. Some last minute “good luck”s and off we went at 6am.
The first few miles passed pretty quickly – a bit of chat with Allan, a missed turn early on (following the crowd but not going far before being called back), eating up the miles and getting to the first CP at Puttenham (6.6 miles) in around an hour. By now I’d also met Rab (who ran the whole thing in a kilt) and a Serpie called Richard. I think I had a cup of coke at the CP.. can’t remember. After Puttenham the trail turns sandy, but apart from a couple of minor bumps is largely flat and runnable. Over the River Wey at Guildford and a gentle climb to the 2nd CP at a little car park at the bottom of St Marthas. This was 13.1 miles, the turnaround point for the marathon which was starting a few hours after us and I’d been averaging 10 minute miles so far. All good. We all walked up the hill to St Marthas church – I used to go and do hill reps there and it’s really not something you want to be running up in this sort of event! Down the other side and a bit of chat with another Matt who I knew from the Picnic and who was doing the 50. After the glorious views at Newlands Corner we were going along one of my favourite parts of the trail – a nice runnable straight stretch of woodland path. The weather had been a bit weird, cloudy and rather humid so everyone was sweating buckets, and here there was some really low mist and it felt like we were running through clouds at some points.
Onto the road at Ranmore and past the church and then down the hill alongside the Denbies wine estate. The last time I ran this section it was a rough gravelly track but it had recently been tarmaced – nice. Further down it reverted to gravelly path though.. At the bottom of this long drag is the A24, a busy dual carriageway, and the route takes you along this for a little way, through a subway to get under the road and then back the way you came. Just by a little car park was the Box Hill CP, 23.9 miles. By now I’d been going for just over 4 and a half hours and was over an hour ahead of the rough schedule I’d knocked up a few weeks earlier. I filled up my pack here, had a bit of mars bar and texted Wendi to say I was ahead of schedule – it looked like I was going to get to Reigate Hill way before she was expecting me! I also texted Rena to suggest she got to Reigate with the kids for around 12, rather than 1:30 which is what I had originally suggested. Over the stepping stones and up the steps and horrible flashbacks of the Picnic marathon It was nice not to have to do that 4 times in this race.
Box Hill was getting geared up for the London/Surrey Cycle Classic taking place the next day – the test event for the Olympics. James (RD) had had some difficulties with LOCOG over our presence on Box Hill over the weekend but thankfully managed to get it all resolved. There were loads of metal barriers around though, ready for the event on Sunday. On the other side of Box Hill I caught up with Richard the Serpie again, who was limping. His calf had gone and it didn’t look promising for him. From the results it looked like he battled on to Reigate Hill and then pulled out, which sucks. Some of the section between Box Hill and Reigate Hill is pretty hard going – narrow woodland and clay paths, lots of tree routes and lots of niggly, technical bits. It passed uneventfully though and on the approach to Reigate Hill I caught up with Nicole, who must have passed me when I missed that turn early on. We went up Reigate Hill together, lamenting the fact that the course marking took us off the NDW and up some steep steps. The views from the top were cracking though, with the sun now out. I’d been feeling great for the last few miles and the thought of seeing my wife and kids at the nearby CP spurred me on further and I had a great run into the CP at around 32 miles – 6:14 on the clock and almost an hour and a half ahead of schedule. Lovely to see Rena and the kids (although Holly could barely tear herself away from Nintendogs!) and Wendi who got busy topping up my pack and supplying sandwiches. Of course, as soon as the butties were available, my kids got stuck in.. I was told later that they didn’t like the ones that Rena bought from the cafe anywhere near as much as the ones Wendi had made for me!
Coming down off Reigate Hill I caught up to Nicole again who’d passed me at the CP and we had a short chat.. she was clearly suffering with her knees already but keeping it together well. At some stage I was running a bit with a chap called Dave who was doing the 50, and we caught a fella called Marcus who was also doing the 100. All three of us cursed our way up the hill to the next CP at Botley Hill, 43 miles. After this, going over a style, a bloke just ahead of me collapsed to the floor, screaming in pain. His calf had completely cramped up – I helped him a bit, trying to help stretch it out, but his calf muscle was pulsating in spasm, like an alien was about to burst out of it or something. It passed, but he decided to lie there on the grass for a while before getting up. I did see him later, coming into the 50 mile CP as I was on my way out, so thankfully he was ok.
On from there was a section which was totally overgrown with nettles just a few weeks ago but had thankfully been cleared (James and Allan had gone out recently all kitted up to do it but it had already been done!) and a few fields with loads of cows and of course the natural byproduct of cows. Poop I mean, not milk, or methane or anything else. The first place 100 miler passed us on his way back and it was ages before we saw the chap in second place – he had a massive lead already. We passed the garden where the yappy dog and the rotweiler live, but the rotty was nowhere to be seen and Marcus and I passed a few miles chatting about previous races and stuff. It was nice to have your company Marcus – cheers mate.
Nearing Knockholt Pound and the 50 mile turnaround, we could easily spot the 50 mile runners as they were winding up for a last minute surge to the finish of their race We got there in 10:46, close to 2 hours ahead of my schedule. I later found out that quite a few 100 mile runners dropped out here – you could see why. There was a full finish area set up for the 50 mile runners whilst the 100 mile runners had a small gazebo and a few chairs Someone kept trying to give me a t-shirt and medal.. I had to tell him at least twice that I was only halfway! Wendi made me a cup of coffee which I immediately managed to kick over, so she graciously made me another (actually I’m sure there was swearing, but whatever). I had a bit of food and put my calf guards on – amazingly I’d not had any calf, achilles or PF issues like the ones that I’d had over the previous few weeks. The first 50 had gone really well – I felt good, not particularly tired but aware that I’d run it much like I’d run a 50 mile race, rather than the first 50 of a 100 mile race. I had a small voice in the back of my mind suggesting that this may come back and haunt me, but I gave it a bit of a glare and it shut up. Dips was all ready to run the first stage or two of the return leg with me so off we went, walking out of the CP and up the road. Just as we left the CP, we saw Nicole heading in and her husband Ryan was there to get her ready and run with her for the return leg. She’d been struggling with her knees for a good 20 miles or more so was doing brilliantly and with Ryan to help her through the second 50, I thought she was in with a great chance of finishing this.
.. And Back Again
So, Dips and I were off and we did a mix of running and walking. I probably should have run here more than I did but whilst I was physically feeling ok, I was starting to feel a bit tired. Still, it was great to have the company of the lovely Dips and we chatted about all sorts, including the forthcoming Round Norfolk Relay. For the first few miles we passed loads of people heading in the other direction and spent a bit of time wondering who was doing the 50 and who was doing the 100. I saw Amanda here (previous 10 in 10 runner) and Matt from the Picnic not far from the finish of their 50. At the Botley Hill CP, I was not the first person to express disappointment at the fact that they’d run out of coke. So, the lovely peeps there dispatched someone to a shop to buy some – too late for me, but what stars. I was starting to suffer with some chafing on my sides from my pack, and I decided to stick some tape on to try and minimise any further damage. After more food and another coffee, it was time to head off again.
9 miles into the return leg and I declared that I’d now run further than ever before in one go.. and I still had 41 miles to go! Not long after this, coming down some steps off Oxted Downs, we encountered Allan, who was sitting down with a foil blanket around him. I asked what was up and he said that he was in shock. He didn’t look great to be honest and wasn’t particularly coherent. He got James on the phone but couldn’t explain where he was so I took the phone and was able to describe our location well enough. James said he’d get help there asap and Allan was telling us to get going. Luckily a bloke who was crewing who I’d seen earlier putting out glowsticks came along and he agreed to stay with Allan until he got picked up. That was a bit scary.. I’ve only got to know Allan recently, although I’ve “known” him on Fetch and Twitter etc for a while. He’s a 100 marathon club member, has run over 100 miles multiple times before, including the GUCR and he’s a bit of a legend tbh. So, to see him like this.. well, scary.
Anyway.. Dips and I kept at it, past the quarry and up one of the many sets of ridiculously steep steps that are dotted around the NDW. After a while the sun was setting and whilst it was still bright enough out in the open, it was getting blummin’ dark whilst in the woods. Headlamp time.. We got through Merstham and a very dark graveyard and started heading towards Reigate Hill. For some reason I had forgotten how long the slog up the hill here is. It just seemed to drag on and on. The ‘mile or so to the CP’ that I told Dips it was from Merstham turned into probably 2.5 and it was properly dark and quiet when we finally got to the CP at Reigate Hill at 10:20pm. I was still over an hour ahead of my schedule, but clearly losing time. I decided to get changed whilst Wendi made up a pot noodle for me. The dry shorts and a long-sleeved top felt great, but I’d got cold and I started shivering. I felt awful and the pot noodle was absolutely disgusting. The theory was that the high carbs and salt content would be spot on, but I just couldn’t stomach much of it. I should have eaten something else instead but I wanted to get moving and warm up. I really felt like shit – if I hadn’t had Dips, Wendi and Mark there, I would seriously have considered pulling out. Oh yes, Mark was there – he seemed to be wearing all his clothes to keep warm and was going to accompany me from there through the night. Top man We reckoned that a few people must be pissed off with the CP being there as it would make an ideal dogging spot.
Off we went and I started warming up. We got a bit lost on top of Reigate Hill trying to follow where the markers deviated from the NDW.. we should have just stuck with the NDW tbh, much more straightforward. Anyway, we found where we should be and kept going. Slow progress though, but Mark was great company. Somewhere on the way up Box Hill we were joined by another runner by the name of Marc, who asked if he could stick with us. The more the merrier and all that. The slog up Box Hill seeemed to last forever, but Mark kept us amused by belching and farting like a goodun. After going down the horrible Box Hill steps, the stepping stones across the River Mole were a great site, with loads of glowsticks marking the way. I should have taken a photo.. d’oh. At the Box Hill CP (76 miles) I had a sit down and some coke and a couple of ham and cheese wraps and Marc gave his feet a full service. I wanted to get moving to keep warm so Mark and I headed off but Marc wasn’t far behind and caught us up before we headed up the slog past Denbies. I mentioned earlier that part of this had been tarmaced recently and we all remarked how it was a brilliant surface after the tree roots and stony paths with a million things to trip over earlier. My Garmin gave up somewhere around this time, having put in a good 18 hours and 35 minutes. Time seemed a little irrelevant now anyway.
I know this trail pretty well, but everything looked so different in the dark, particularly in the woods. I spent most of my time scanning trees by the sides of the trail for marker tape, NDW signposts and glowsticks ahead, to make sure we were on the right track. Unfortunately this went wrong quite soon.. I remember bring at a fork in the trail, with 2 or 3 different paths. I looked at the signpost and thought I’d headed in the direction of the one saying the North Downs Way. Clearly I got that wrong. We headed down a steep descent which was very rough underfoot. I thought to myself that I don’t remember a descent like this on the trail here, but I then saw a bit of red and white tape on a tree (which could have been leftover from some previous event in the area). It wasn’t until we got to the bottom and to a gate that we realised that we were on the wrong trail (it said Dorking to Gomshall path). Still, I knew that Gomshall is just a little south of the NDW and I remembered a path signposted to Gomshall off the trail during the first 50, so I thought that we should carry on (rather than go back up the hill we’d gone down) and we’d find a way back to the NDW. With a combination of Mark’s eTrex and the Map app on my iPhone, we made sure we were heading west and towards a road that I thought we could take North, and we should see the NDW again. Thankfully it worked, but there was a worried atmosphere around and I think we must have wasted some time here. Looking at the maps now, afterwards, I can see where we went, and we were really very close to the trail at all times, but in the middle of the night it felt like we’d gone miles off. I was still keeping warm in my long sleeved OMM top but at some point I noticed that I had stopped sweating, even though I felt like I was hot enough to sweat. I hoped that didn’t mean anything.
Not long after this, at around 4am and after we’d got back onto the NDW, I virtually fell asleep. I had my eyes open, but I was basically sleeping whilst still plodding on. I felt awful. I literally kept looking at the ground and wishing I could just lie down, anywhere. All sorts of things went through my head. ‘Mark, why are you so far ahead.. come here and talk to me.’ ‘I can’t snap out of this, what’s going on?’ ‘Oh look, there’s the floor. Sit down, lie down, just for a bit.’ Marc went into the bushes for a call of nature. I lent against a signpost but daren’t close my eyes. I think I was slurring, or mumbling. Mark was brilliant (and still belching impressively). He just kept going, a few paces ahead, turning to check on me every now and then with his big smiling Janner face I craved caffeine, but I should have eaten something. I was still drinking my 4:1 mix but kept feeling like I wanted to burp, but couldn’t, and thought I’d be sick. Basically I was just completely exhausted.
Eventually the sky started getting lighter. By the time we reached Newlands Corner, we could turn our headlamps off. I ate some malt loaf and that coupled with the daylight seemed to wake me up a little. As we got near St Marthas hill, a runner came flying past us, looking bright and breezy. We couldn’t work it out – how could someone have taken the same time as us to get this far, but now look that with it and be running so fast? We agreed that he must have had a kip somewhere. Git. We made it up and over St Marthas and knew the CP was at the bottom of the hill. We staggered into the CP and slumped into the chairs there. 87 miles in 24 hours and 26 minutes.I had a cup of coke and was then given a can of Red Bull. Caffeine, my old friend. I woke up – it was glorious I think I ate something more before the three of us headed on our way again. We were still as slow as anything, but still going and a bit more chatty now.
Whilst I was now awake, everything hurt and my legs were totally stiff. It was hard going, but I knew we’d make it now, and I knew we’d be well within the 32 hour limit. It was just a matter of keeping going. 13 miles seemed like an awfully long way now though – normally a distance I can easily knock out without any bother at all. We made it to the next CP at Puttenham, with 6 miles to go, where the bloke there told me off for sitting down for too long. I could have swung for him, but he was right. Dips took over from Mark for the last bit and I treated her to her slowest 10K ever! I hadn’t topped my drink up at either of the last two CPs so of course ran out not long after leaving Puttenham so had to share Dips’s water. Silly me.. When we passed the golf club in Sands and the place where the Pilgrim starts and finishes, I thought we were only a mile or so from the end. I mile or so after this, a runner out for a morning jog passed us in the other direction and told us we had another mile and a half to go. I nearly cried. Further on, we passed a sign saying “just one mile left!” or similar. Clearly, this was intended to spur people on to the finish. I did a swear. When we actually, really were near the finish, I broke into a run. Well.. jog, shuffle, lope – whatever it is that zombies do when they’re heading your way and want to eat your brain. My legs felt horrific. It didn’t last long. After a few more minutes, we saw Mark. “How far?” I mumbled. No reply. “How far?” Nothing. Throw me a frickin’ bone Mark. Dips translated. “How far? He wants to run in.” “Just round the corner.”
So we ran. Dips dropped back and I shambled into a little car park behind a petrol station at the end of the trail, looking like death. 100 miles, 28 hours, 48 minutes and 14 seconds. Utterly, completely exhausted.
James shook my hand and the first thing I asked was what happened to Allan. Of course, James couldn’t understand me in my state (and to be fair, he’d been up all night too) so after asking again he told me what had happened and that Allan was ok. Cool. Medal round my neck, buckle and t-shirt presented and I got to sit down. Marc finished a few minutes after me, and he also looked like shit
It turned out that Nicole had finished a few hours ahead of me – I was made up for her. Someome said that of 67 who started the 100, 35 had pulled out at some point, including many experienced ultra runners. I’d really struggled through the last 25 miles, but I’d done it, and with 12 people still behind me.
I’d said to Dips a few times during that last 6 miles that I’d never do this distance again and that the through the night thing was just so hard. It really is. I’m a person who likes, needs his sleep. A good 7 hours a night, minimum. But then of course you start thinking about what went wrong and what you could do better. I think I actually got a lot right – I was well hydrated, used a good drink mix which provided plenty of carbs, some protein and electolytes. I didn’t suffer any injuries bar some chafing and have no knee or ankle problems. However, I should have eaten a lot more. I might one day do a 100 again, but no time soon.
The race itself was excellent. This was the first race put on by Centurion Running and it was a massive undertaking – 50 miles of trail which was marked with tape and glowsticks, three separate races (marathon, 50 & 100), 6 aid stations as well as the start/finish which were staffed by friendly and enthusiastic people and well stocked with food and drink, medical support throughout the whole race if needed, and so on. Incredible. The race also had a great website with live times on it, which people were following and I got a lot of texts, tweets and facebook messages throughout the race which was awesome.
Finally, Wendi, Dips and Mark. You three are true friends. You gave up your time selflessly to help me do this. You put up with me when I was not at all with it in the night and kept me going. Thanks so much.