Well, Saturday was quite a day. I’ll try and get my feelings into words as best as I can over the next few paragraphs.
My only goal for the day was to go sub 11 hours. That was all that mattered. By going sub 11 I would qualify to enter the lottery for the Western States 100.
Last year, I finished this same race in 11 hours and 41 minutes, having had a terrible final 10 miles. I was utterly gutted but also knew that I was not yet ready to qualify for Western States and took it with a pinch of salt. It was a big learning curve for me and rather than get depressed, I took stock of what went right and more importantly what went wrong. I went away, amended my kit, diet and training and stayed focused on achieving what I had set my heart on. Nine months on I was back at the start and I was prepared to do all that it took to go sub 11.
Running the Western States 100 has been a dream of mine for two years now. I first read about it- like many people I know- in Dean Karnazes’ book ‘Ultramarathon Man’. There are many 100 mile footraces in the world now, but this is where it all began and there is something truly special about this race. In June of last year I was there to crew for Jez Bragg and took it all in from the sidelines, but to run it myself would be the fulfilment of a dream. I can’t explain why it means so much to me, it just does.
I knew from experience that going sub 11 was by no means a given and anything can happen over such a long distance with tough terrain. So on Saturday, lining up at the start in Farnham I told myself to take it steady and just get through the first 24 miles at a gentle pace, reserving energy for the final 26 miles. Up until mile 24 the race is relatively ‘easy’. Whilst undulating, there are no mega hills and it was possible to run every step. This I did.
I made it to the first aid station at mile seven, 5 minutes up on last years time and felt very comfortable. Seven miles in an hour was quite fast for this sort of distance (for me), so I reined myself in for the next 6 miles to aid station two. Again, I took another five minutes off last years time by the time I got here without trying, in exactly two hours. I now had to find another 31 minutes over the rest of the course to be in with a shot.
At this aid station just outside of Guildford I knew I would meet someone who I have only got to know recently, but hugely admire. Dave Urwin is, like me, relatively new to ultrarunning but even more passionate. He recently just smashed the ONER in Dorset and we had been chatting online for a while. Dave kindly agreed to pace me in August when I do the 100 mile North Downs event and I was really looking forward to saying hello and meeting him in the flesh. It was great to shake his hand and have a chat before I headed off for the longest portion of the race without any aid- 11 miles to Box Hill and the 24 mile aid station.
I got to mile 24 in 4:25 last year and knew if I hit the same time this year I would be doing well. For me it was all about the second half and staying strong having the benefit of course knowledge and increased training. I didn’t need to smash this next section, but take it steady.
However, after meeting Dave and thinking about our similar paths in the past and now present, I was inspired and set off at a good clip. I turned my i-pod on for the first time and enjoyed the views where they opened up, and the shade when we were enclosed in woodland. It was like I was meditating and I was shocked when all of a sudden I saw Dorking approach on the right hand side of me, way sooner than I had expected. I knew it was a fast downhill section to hit the aid station and so let my legs run away and carry me as fast as I could down this fast section. I hit the check point in 4:02, now 23 minutes up on last year. I had taken another 13 minutes off my time in the last two hours and was feeling really positive.
Box Hill to Reigate Hill is the hardest part of this course without a shadow of a doubt. It is only a seven mile section, but probably covers over half of the total elevation gain for the whole course. 3000 ft in seven miles is no mean feat and includes a lot of descending too. I trained here a few weeks ago to re-familiarise myself with it and the weather was awful that day. It took me two hours on fresh legs. Factoring in the weather being perfect today, but having just run 24 miles pretty fast I was looking for around the same sort of time. If I could be at Reigate Hill, mile 31 in six hours I would be looking good. I got here in 5:45. I was now 40 minutes up on last years time and just needed to find a further one minute to hit 11 hours.
It was way too early in the race to get excited and I knew I had to hold it together for the last 19 miles. I rolled my ankle at about mile four and luckily this didn’t do any damage, but I knew that one small slip and my goal would go out of the window, so I had to stay focussed and keep watching my steps. The vast majority of the North Downs Way runs through forest and you are constantly stepping over tree roots and need to stay alert. Not so easy on tired legs and exhaustion starting to seep into the brain.
I kept it steady and had a good section. I hit the 38 mile Caterham aid station in 7:10 and had three hours and forty minutes to cover 12 miles in. It was looking good, but not in the bag yet.
The race started at 8am and I had to be in by 7pm to qualify. Looking at my watch, I now started to get excited. I told myself if I hit the final checkpoint at mile 43 by 5pm I would have it in the bag. Two hours to cover seven of the easier miles of the course. 5pm by mile 43. 5pm by mile 43. 5pm by mile 43. This was all that went through my head for the next five miles.
I hit mile 43 at half past four that afternoon. Even if I walked in now, I was going to qualify. But now I was getting a little cocky and thinking about finishing in sub 10 hours. I was feeling fine and passed the spot where I was physically sick last year at a good clip. I then tripped and told myself to rein it in. This was no time to mess the whole day up and to take it steady.
The last few miles are through incredibly dull fields. The race itself is beautiful until this point and with energy sapped, they seemed to go on forever. I jogged, then walked for the last section, knowing I was going to qualify. By the time I climbed over the last stile and hit the road which led down to the village of Knockholt Pound and the finish, I let the relief flood over me. The same as last year, I started crying but this time not through just utter exhaustion but joy that I had done what I set out to do.
I crossed the finish line in 10 hours and 11 minutes and collapsed to the ground. I had taken exactly an hour and a half off last years time. I had just proven myself worthy to go into the ballot for Western States. The qualifying criteria is set at 11 hours on a 50 mile race to ensure that only those capable of running it can finish. Furthermore, only a few select 50 mile races are deemed tough enough and very few of these are in Europe. Whether or not I get in, I had just earned the right to apply.
That night I stayed in a hotel in Aldershot as I didn’t have the legs or brain to drive back to Bath. I slept incredibly well, which was unexpected and the pain wasn’t anywhere near as bad as last year, just the expected soreness in the legs. At breakfast the next day I got chatting to three other guys who had also run the race and we discussed the day and how we all got on. The conversation turned to where we are from and I said Bath. One of them (sorry I don’t remember the names) asked if I was the ‘blogger’. My reply was, nope that’s not me- I’ve got a blog but no one reads it. His response was along the lines of, “oh, its just some guy from Bath has a blog where he talks about this race and how much he wants to qualify for western states etc etc”. I couldn’t believe it, they actually were talking about my little blog. I genuinely had no idea anyone read it apart from a few friends on Facebook and my Dad (my mum too, when she is feeling brave…). It really meant the world to me- I don’t know how you found it or if you are reading this now, but thank you.
Final thanks go to James Elson, Al Black and the Centurion team. They put on the most amazing races and are so well organised. It was a pleasure meeting Robbie Britton and seeing him at virtually every aid station as he travelled the course by car.
Final, final word goes to Gemma Bragg. Gemma has become a good friend and we have both had the pleasure (right word?) of crewing for Jez at Western States. She is as focussed as me on getting in and she smashed the course apart on Saturday (with a bad knee) finishing in 9:35. That is just ten minutes off last year’s course record.