I have finally found the time to sit down and write about the North Downs Way 50, my first foray into ultrarunning and ultramarathon’s.
I entered this race back in February of this year, having made the decision I was going to train for and hopefully complete an ultra. I will talk about training for this in a separate piece as I want to use this ‘diary’ to show how I trained from being a very average marathon runner (3:52 personal best at London, April 2012) to an ultrarunner.
When I put my mind to something, I am like a terrier and just never, ever give up. For better or worse I have always been this way and it has lead to some great successes and some huge failings to date. I entered this race because I had become obsessed already with running the Western States 100 and this was one of only three qualifying races in the UK. It was also the closest to home, was held in August- so would give me plenty of time to prepare and (likely) be held in good weather. It also, on paper, looked like the most achievable to run in under 11 hours which was one of the pre-requisites for Western States minimum qualification criteria for a 50 miler.
Firstly, having two very small children, planning the logistics of the day was almost as complicated as planning to train, whilst having a full time job and myriad other personal commitments away from the office. I live in Bath, Somerset and the race started in Farnham, Surrey at 7:30am with pre-race registration and briefing set for 6am onwards. My wife’s parents live in London and I travel to the big smoke once or twice a week for work, so we made the decision that on Wednesday evening before the race we would drive to London as a family where we would stay the night, I would work on Thursday and then head back to Bath alone on Thursday evening, with my wife and the kids staying in London for the weekend.
On the Friday I rested and did my last two mile hilly run to the top of Solsbury Hill, behind my village (made famous by the Peter Gabriel song). The sun was shining, I had never felt better and I was ready to take on the North Downs Way 50.
Later that afternoon my Father made the way from his house in Devon to meet me in Bath. He had kindly suggested that the last thing I needed on race day was to get up at 4am and drive myself two hours to the start. Why didn’t he come and join me to drive me to Farnham, so I could rest as much as possible in the passenger seat. This really helped and we had a great afternoon together before packing my kit, having an early supper of tuna and anchovy pasta and getting to bed around 9pm.
As always before a big occasion, I struggled to sleep and felt really bloated and full from forcing so much food down my neck a few hours before. Lesson number one from this was that I shouldn’t stuff myself the night before a race and whilst the food was a good mix of protein, good fats and carbs, I didn’t need so much as I would also be eating throughout the race as well as at breakfast. One of the main differences between marathons and ultras being that you need to keep eating during the race to maintain energy and balance electrolytes. You run at a slower pace too, so whilst a good meal beforehand helps, it’s not the be all and end all.
At 4am the alarm clock went off and having probably only managed two to four hours of proper sleep the adrenaline was starting to kick in and I was ready to do battle. At my level of running, this was never going to be a race against anyone else. Where I finished did not matter, merely that I did finish and achieved something that was a huge personal milestone. The only person I was competing against was me and the voice in my head that would tell me I didn’t need to do this, when times got tough out there.
After a quick bowl of porridge and a smoothie, we were on our way. I dozed on and off whilst Dad drove and before I knew it, we were at the start. Dad was fantastic and took me all the way to the start line before heading for the station to make the five hour journey back to Devon. He joked that he would be home for lunch and I would probably have done less than a marathon by the time he went for a little afternoon nap.
The race starts at the very beginning of the North Downs Way national trail at the eastern edge of Farnham and travels east through Surrey, greater London and Kent. We would ‘just’ be running the first 50 mile portion to a village called Knockholt Pound on the outskirts of London, but to get there would have to climb almost 6000 ft of hills, which were condensed into several ridiculously hilly portions such as the steps climbing up Box Hill and the never ending Reigate Hill. The total elevation change was close to 10,000 ft and for a UK, non-mountain race that was a lot. As the post race report mentioned, the North Downs Way is a deceptively difficult trail and I was just about to find this out first hand.
At precisely 7:30am the gun went off and we were moving. At 6am the 100 mile runners had started and my first goal was to catch some of these guys before 20 miles was up. They would be running for up to 30 hours and our 50 mile ultra was known as the ‘fun-run’ in comparison. By the end I would know what they meant and the difference between 50 and 100 mile trail running is utterly vast, something you cannot appreciate until you run an ultra.
I had made the decision before the race that I would not think of this as a 50 mile run, but a series of 6 to 12 mile runs between the six aid stations dotted throughout the course. This was firstly a psychological boost as when times got tough I wasn’t thinking about how far I had left and secondly a good way of managing my time splits to hit the sub 11 hour Western States qualification times. I made a list of two sets of times, with the first being my ideal time splits for a run of nine and a half hours and the second, worst case times in order to finish in 10 hours and 50 minutes. Both of these sets of times factored in a slowing pace as the race went on and exhaustion kicked in. On paper, once again, I had it all planned to a T.
The first aid station was at mile 6.8. The goal was to get there in one hour and ten minutes or one and a half hours, worst case. The journey here felt gentle as the field of 150 runners started to spread out. I was all too aware of stories of people going out too fast and crashing later in the race so had this in my mind. At the same time, I also knew I could run a marathon on any given day in around four hours on a hilly course, having vastly improved since my 3:52 at, the flat, London in April. Did I run to the best of my ability for a distance I knew and then head into the second half unknown, but with bags of time left or run steady and hope I could keep it up? In the end, I opted for somewhere in the middle and ran at around just over nine minute mile pace, as opposed to eight which was normal comfortable pace.
At this stage I still took the course for granted and found it easy as it started off flat and cool, as we ran through fields, country lanes and shaded woodland paths. I was conscious of the weather forecast and knew the day would warm up significantly to around 28 degrees later on, so again wanted to get as many swift miles under my belt as I could before we ended up warm and more exposed to the elements. I would draw the line at saying it was easy at this point, but I would say it was well within my capability and I felt good.
Before I knew it, I was arriving at the aid station where a small crowd greeted us with claps and cheers. This gave me a lift straight away and I flew in fast to refill my handheld water bottle with around six others who I had formed a group with. I was also carrying a two litre Camelbak which I hadn’t yet touched but knew I would need later in the day. As I handed my handheld to the volunteer I heard a booming voice “Morning dickheads, hurry up and get the fuck out of here you lazy scrotes”. This was clearly Henk Van Der Beek, who we had been warned about at the briefing who would help make our first stop short and brief. I now knew why. A fellow runner told me after the event that when he arrived after me, they were running out of water so Henk came up to him and offered to give him a pint….of his own piss. A thoroughly decent guy all round.
As I ran back on to the trail for the next seven mile stint towards Guildford, I realised I was well ahead of my split times and so eased off the pace a little so I could run by myself and not be pulled along by the group I was with before. I was actually quite surprised by this as I am naturally immature and wish to storm ahead wherever I can. I stopped for my first pee of the day, had my first gu gel and an s!cap and got on my way. Having read so much on ultras in the last year, I knew balancing my salt intake with water was key. I drink a lot when I run and anticipated that I would be taking one salt cap every hour or so and one energy gel by gu every two hours. Lesson number two was that I should have taken more gels with me and had them more frequently. I only had six with me, three in my Camelbak and three in a small elasticised belt that wrapped around my waist. I didn’t carry more as there were supposed to be lots at the aid stations, but with 150, 100 mile runners having headed off before us and around 50 runners from my field ahead, they had been decimated. This first ultra was all about learning and adjusting so I can improve as I develop. I vowed that in the future I would carry more and just stop at aid stations for water. Yes, this would result in a heavier load but would also mean I wouldn’t be ‘budgeting’ my gels by time splits and could just eat when I needed, making me faster, more alert and less apprehensive later in the race when I needed energy fixes the most.
As we passed the ten mile mark I felt the course start to undulate more and I started to conserve energy by walking on the steeper hills and running fast the downhills, with jogging on the flat. This section was also more technical than the beginning with shadows from the ever rising sun hiding tree roots, so I tripped few times. There were also some very sandy sections and these were slow going and cumbersome. I knew at the next aid station it would be time to shake out my shoes and wipe down my socks to try and keep the chances of blisters to a minimum.
As we approached Guildford, my surroundings became more familiar, having lived there for almost eight years at University and in my first job. These were my party days and I felt proud of how far I had come since those lost days. I again realised I was way ahead of my splits and despite slowing my pace and running alone, I had reined in around ten runners and some even seemed to be struggling, which I was surprised about this early on in the race. I took this as a sign to slow down even more and take it steady. I was less than two hours in and had, even by my best forecast, at least another seven and a half hours of running to go and it was only going to get hotter and hillier.
At 12.5 miles I reached the second aid station, St Martha’s where I refilled by handheld and my Camelbak. The next stretch was the longest between aid stations at 12 miles, which would signal the halfway point, and I was conscious to be carrying a lot of water. I am very conscientious of my hydration levels and could see some of those around me who just had handhelds suffering the effects of mild dehydration already. I learnt later that over ten people had dropped out by this point and I factored that the majority of these will have been from hydration related issues.
I rinsed my face, which was caked in dried sweat already, and dunked my visor in a bucket of water to keep my head cool. Grabbed some chopped mars bars and crisps and marched off eating these as I went. The volunteers at each aid station were great and I made sure to thank them at every stop.
I walked for about half a mile to let the food digest and had another s!cap. I then started to build back into a jog, knowing I had completed the first quarter of the race way ahead of my planned time.
I knew this area having run a 10k through the surrey hills a few years back so I was prepared for the hills to come, but nevertheless despite being in the best shape of my life, I had to work hard to keep a good pace. The next two miles to Newlands Corner were really hard work and I started to appreciate for the first time how easily my lead over my splits could be eroded. I swallowed a gel, gritted my teeth and continued the climb up to Newlands Corner.
After Newlands, the trail was mainly flat and simple for the next hour or so as we ran through woodland and had occasional views of the stunning Surrey hills. I met a few other runners, some I was passing and some passing me and really enjoyed having gentle conversation. I knew from reading about it how friendly people are during ultras, but this was my first personal experience. I have now run three marathons and the atmosphere is not the same. People have a set time in mind and run hard to achieve that. There is no time to chat. Out here, we had time to chat and motivate one another, but conversely didn’t have a crowd to cheer us, so had to push one another. None of us were racing each other as I have said before, we were racing ourselves and the logical side of our brains that later would not stop telling us to quit.
It was here I realised I needed to stop conserving so much water and drink more. My second pee stop was a reflection of this and I knew I needed more fluid in my system. I took some hard pulls on my Camelbak and kept running. At around mile 20, the trail emerged from the forest and started to meander downhill. I could see Box Hill in the distance and knew that this was going to be the hardest part of the day after the aid station at mile 24. I was feeling OK, but having been drinking lots I was virtually out of water. Two litres in the backpack and 75ml in the handheld gone in two hours.
I ran fast down the now paved road for the last four miles to the aid station, with no additional weight being carried I was still clocking off nine minute miles, but having slowed beforehand. I felt very thirsty and hungry as I hit the bottom of the hill and realised I still had about another half a mile until I reached food and drink. I had made it to mile 24 in four and a half hours and was happy with my time. I knew it would be hard from here to hit nine and a half hours, but was still way on for a sub 11 hour time and that was my now re-focussed goal. I refilled the bladder in my Camelbak, filled the handheld to the brim, washed down two s!caps with coke, grabbed some ham and hummus wraps and come crisps and jelly beans and I was off.
It was here I passed the first 100 mile runner (I had passed some others earlier but they were way off the pace and would miss the cut offs). This was a boost and I wished him good luck before running 500 yards to the start of the steps that lead up box hill. Everyone talks about Box Hill with awe I must admit I had ignored all of this hype. I live and train in Bath and we have no choice but to run hills on every training run. I wasn’t scared about this hill and was ready to skip up it and bomb down the other side.
It was at this point I looked up. Thick mud steps had been cut into the hillside and re-enforced with timber. But there was no handrail. There must have been 200 1.5 ft steps in just my field of view and I knew they zig-zagged for a lot further than that. I bent double and hiked with my hands on my thighs and went as quickly as I could. Running was out of the question but I needed to keep moving and climbing, knowing the quicker I went the quicker this hill would be over. After about half an hour I was making slow and steady progress but the hill was unrelenting and tough. Every time I thought I was there and started to jog on a flat bit of trail, more steps quickly materialised and I was becoming thoroughly demoralised. After the last stretch of time I was conscious of not over doing my water intake. The next stretch was only seven miles to the aid station, but I figured with this terrain it would take me as long as that 12 mile run.
Finally I made it to the top, my thighs and calves burning. I took stock, had some water and a gel and took of down the other side. This was equally as steep and really took its toll on my quads. After nearly 30 miles I was in unchartered distance territory. I had only run this far once before and whilst it was around Bath, it was nothing compared with Box Hill. Running downhill was as painful as up and I had some blisters developing nicely, which I tried to ignore as there was nothing I could do for another 20 miles and god knows how many hills and hours.
I must have been a little delirious here as I don’t remember the bottom of the hill or where I started the climb to the second hardest hill, Reigate Hill. The one thing I do remember is starting to hear traffic and knowing the M25 couldn’t be far away and this was a significant milestone as I plotted my run on the map in the weeks leading up to the race.
After some time, I finally crested the top of Reigate Hill and saw a crew who I had said hello to a couple of times before, who must have been looking after someone who was behind me somewhere. They said well done and I muttered something along the lines of “….these should be called the North Up’s not the North Downs…” they in turn commented that I was still looking good and at least I still had some semblance of humour (no matter how bad it was with hindsight).
I came into the aid station at mile 31 feeling exhausted and trying not to think of the further 19 miles I had to go before this was over. I wanted to enjoy the day, but was struggling right now. My time was shot and I was struggling to maintain pace for Western States minimum cut off. I knew at this point I would finish, but would I qualify?
I turned around quickly at this station, ate, got water, downed s!caps and a gel and headed downhill. The volunteers were again brilliant and told me in no uncertain terms that whilst still hilly to come, the worst was behind me. I was in about 50th place of 150 and a lot had dropped or were behind the cut off (runners had to finish within 13.5 hours and each aid station had a cut off time, which many were not making, which must be devastating having trained so hard).
I remember screaming “Come On!” to myself as I left and I got a big cheer from the spectators and walkers who were milling around the car park. I ran hard down the hill and was once again feeling fantastic. It was amazing how quick joy turned to despair and vice versa and this is why I will do more and more ultras. You really test what you are made of on these days.
I thought about my wife and two little kids, who had been amazing throughout my training. My kids were too small to know what I was doing (or at least I thought) but my training had taken time away from them at weekends so I owed them a result. During the London Marathon this year I was distraught to witness paramedics working on Claire Squire’s who tragically died just yards from the finish. Before this race, and we are not a soppy couple, my wife Solange sent me a message saying to please come home after the race and not to do anything stupid just to get a medal. Several famous trail runners have died on the trails this year too and this wasn’t a 10k in the park. This was 80k through some of the toughest terrain the UK has to offer. So whilst I ran hard, I ran with reason too and monitored my heart rate and breathing constantly. If I felt crap, I walked for a bit.
More hills, more trees, more conversations- albeit briefer ones by this point, and I was once again at an aid station, this time mile 38 at Caterham. I had less than a half marathon to go and I was here in eight hours. I had three hours to run 12 miles and qualify for Western States. I was going to qualify!
At this point it all fell apart in such a spectacular fashion, its hard to describe. My legs felt like lead, encased in concrete. My arse was chafed and sore and my head span once or twice. I never stopped, but I found it hard to even jog at times. I walked the flats and uphills and jogged the downhills. I was eroding time and I forgave myself if I didn’t qualify. I just wanted to finish and lie down with some lucozade and sweets.
I kept plugging away and started to contemplate what I was doing there and how far I had come. This time 13 months ago I wasn’t even aware of ultramarathons and now I was doing one and in the top third of runners. I accepted that even if I did qualify, I was not yet ready to train for 100 miles on a much harder course and to have patience. I was doing great and for once in my life, actually felt proud. I am naturally hard on myself so this was a huge step for me and I started to see why people run ultras to find themselves and strip away all pretence so you are at your rawest.
More hills, more paths and then an evil, sickening, violent, disgusting hill to the top of Botley Hill and the final aid station at mile 43. I met two guys on the climb who were just ace and helped me motivate myself to the top. They were shattered too, but we were all smiling. We were all achieving something great today and we all knew we would finish…no matter what the time.
I loaded up for the final time on water and stuffed down some food before plodding out for the final, hellish seven miles. No more than 200 yards out of the aid station, but thankfully out of sight, I was doubled over on my knees at the side of the trail. I don’t know if you can describe it as being sick, but everything I had just eaten came right back up (mostly whole). You could even see bite marks on the sandwich where I had chewed. My body was saying enough is enough. Don’t expect anything more from me today.
Oddly enough, I stood up and smiled. I was pushing myself to my limits and I was still standing- just. I tentatively jogged and left ok. I kept jogging and felt fine, even my legs felt less sore. After about a mile I was running at a much faster pace than I had been for hours. I knew I wouldn’t make cut off for Western States but that was OK. I would be back and I would be better prepared.
The last three miles are relatively flat through fields and I jog/ walked this. I met a guy from Scotland and we ran together for a bit, but he was faster so I let him go. Finally, after field after field after field, I made it to a road where I guy was waiting for his runner. He said to turn left and head down the country lane and I would be at the finish. It was then I saw the ‘Centurion Running’ flags in the wind and the group of spectators clapping me home. I burst into tears, utterly exhausted and spent and crossed the finish line in 11 hours and 41 minutes.
In the days after the race, my high started to fade to disappointment that if I could have just made up those 42 minutes, I would be in the lottery for Western States. But that is how I am and why I will be back. I gave my all and it wasn’t enough to qualify, but it was enough to know this is what I want to do with my spare time now. Looking back, it was one of the best experiences of my life.
My wife met me in Farnham and drove me to London (minibus from finish back to start first) and looked after me amazingly. This was as hard for her as it was for me, with me leaving her with two kids under two and a half for many hours at weekends and evenings. She was my rock and is encouraging me to push myself further. I mentioned in my report how I didn’t think the kids were aware what I was doing, but my eldest- Monty- grabbed my medal the next day and wouldn’t let it go. He kept kissing me and then the medal and insisted her wore it to nursery the next day to show it off. It’s his medal now and means I need to go and get another one for his sister next August. And qualify for Western States.