One of these days, I will get in the car and visit Knockholt Pound. I know there is not much there, but it will be nice to enter the village soon when my emotions aren’t utterly shot to pieces.
Three times in the last year I have run into that village, crying, having run 50 miles. The first, tears of relief and disappointment to have finished my first 50 mile trail race, but having missed the qualification time for Western States. The second, eight weeks ago, in tears of joy having completed the same race but having qualified for Western States, and then again this weekend. In tears of agony and confusion as to why I was having to contemplate my first drop from any race I have ever entered. This was the first time Knockholt Pound was the halfway point for me. The race I had spent six month building up to, the North Downs Way 100.
In November 2012 I was volunteering at the Winter 100 with big plans to enter a 100 mile race in America in summer 2013. That night, as I worked in an aid station blown to pieces by gale force winds and lashing rain, I met two people who have since become good friends. Barry Miller and Stuart March who I both admire greatly. They said, based on me being new to ultras I should perhaps set my sights on my first 100 in the UK. That way I would have friends and family to help me out and in the worst case that I couldn’t finish, I wouldn’t be halfway across the world alone. It was sound advice and I took it. The next day I signed up for the NDW100 for August 2013.
Since that day, this race has been the focus of my training and running thoughts. I knew it was the hardest race that Centurion put on in the UK and I wanted that. My thoughts were based on if I can’t do this race which is tough by UK standards, but positively flat and easy by US standards, I would not be ready to enter a US race any time soon. I also knew the first half of the course well and felt familiarity would help, which it did.
My race did not go to plan, but I am genuinely not as upset as many people worry I am right now. I have accepted it and will use it as another lesson in the learning curve of this great community. If it was easy, it wouldn’t be the challenge that it is. And when I do cross that finish line to collect my first 100 mile buckle, it will be all the more sweeter.
My family have been amazing in the build up to the race. My wife and kids went to my in-laws on Tuesday of last week, so I would have several restful nights before the race itself. They had a great week and I headed towards the start on Friday morning. My parents volunteered to crew for me during the first 50 miles of the run and had kindly booked a hotel for us all close to the start so we could all have as much rest as possible before the big day. I met up with them, had dinner and we all had an early night before leaving at 5:15am for the race briefing and start at 6am.
On Friday morning, as I was packing my kit before leaving for Farnham, I noticed that the insect repellent I use had burst in the box where I keep all my race kit. I was a bit pissed off as everything was sticky, but thought no more of it. I looked on the bright side that we had bought this before our honeymoon to Tanzania a few years ago, so covering my stuff would mean a day without being bugged by horse flys. What I didn’t realise was that the stuff was so strong that it stuck to my water bottles and even after rinsing, meant for the first 30 or so miles of the race I could taste the rancid stuff with every sip I took.
At 6am the race started and it was a gentle pace towards the first checkpoint at mile 7. I was probably two thirds down the field, exactly where I wanted to be and taking it steady. After about 20 minutes I took my first sip of water and immediately tasted the insect repellent. It wasn’t overbearing, but made the water taste sickly and I cursed myself for not having scrubbed them when I had the chance rather than just rinsing them at the hotel. In a 100 mile race something that can seem so inconsequential before the start, can suddenly derail you once you get moving. One tasted worse than the other so I ignored that one and knew I would be able to dump the water and refill in less than an hour. Whether it was psychosomatic or whether it was genuine, as these repellents are made from some nasty stuff, I felt my abdomen start to hurt a little and my breathing become a bit more laboured than it should have been at this pace so early on.
I ignored it and got to the first aid station where I dumped the water, refilled with gu brew and tried my best to wipe the nozzles I drank from to get the taste away, and whilst it was better, the taste was still there. There was nothing I could do and it wasn’t enough to panic me yet, just annoy me. I now had another six miles to get to the 13 mile checkpoint where I would see my parents for the first time.
It was fantastic having them along with me for this. It was their first experience of an ultra and they can now see why I love these races so much. They met some great people on the way and thoroughly enjoyed being there. For me it was great to know when I would see them and have a psychological boost. To date when I have run the 50 mile versions I just grabbed things from the aid stations and whilst I continued to do this, I also had my own food and drink with them too.
At mile 13 I had one of the rice puddings and this hit the spot as well as some coca cola and coconut water. I felt much better and left them for the longest stretch without aid, a further 12 miles to the Box Hill aid station. This section was uneventful and I kept up a good pace. If anything I was too fast, as I was keeping up with my splits from the 10 hour 50 mile version in May. But I felt OK, aside from some stomach pain. After a couple of hours, I dropped down to the bottom of Box Hill, met my folks again (who had been fighting with the Sat Nav and only just made it in time to meet me. I felt their pain having crewed before and I know it is far more stressful than running the race itself). I re-filled with water, told them I was fine but a bit tired and would see them at mile 31 after the next hard section. At the bottom of Box Hill I got some snacks at the aid station, some more gels and was about to move on when I saw that Sam Robson had dropped. I know Sam from facebook but we hadn’t spoken in person yet. I said I was sorry he had dropped but he was charming about it. The words he spoke next stuck with me and helped in my tough decision later on “Will the me in two or three years look back at the me now and think I am a pussy for having dropped out?” No, was his answer. It wasn’t his day and what was the point in damaging yourself just for a finish?
My abdomen still hurt, but I kept remembering the 100 mile mantra “It never always gets worse”. This is temporary and might fade later on as I keep chipping away at the distance. The steps up Box Hill didn’t feel too bad and I saw Stuart at the top who was the race photographer again. He said I was looking good and this gave me a boost. A little while later I started to feel my breathing was laboured, almost as if I was running at altitude. Box Hill is all of 400 feet….I found myself yawning a lot and know this is a sign of the body trying to get more oxygen. I was tired, but have never yawned in a race before. Maybe I was just tired, but again I had the repellent in the back of my mind that combined with intense exercise, having ingested this stuff it might be playing on my lungs. It was not a nice place to be and I ground out the next seven miles to the Reigate Hill aid station.
Here, again, I met my parents and sat down for the first time. I couldn’t even look at anything in the cool box and only wanted coca cola. I tried one of the meal replacement milkshakes I had brought along and gagged it down. This was not going as planned. I was on time target wise, even ahead, but I was really struggling to fuel and so early on I couldn’t get by on just fruit and coca cola. Maybe at mile 70, but not mile 31.
I set off again with my Mum shouting at me to slow down and agreed to see them soon after the 38 mile aid station. This next section was fine, but a mixture of jogging and walking and uneventful. For the first time I couldn’t keep any gels down even and knew I would dehydrate soon if I couldn’t get this under control.
I wasn’t thinking about dropping, but I was thinking about my life outside of running. Of having a young family, a business that is stressful and requires time and attention, of houses and life in general. I thought about how I look in the mirror now and feel happy with what I see because of races like this. I run for the pure enjoyment of running but like to have races to look forward to and push me. But I looked at it in a mature way that races are not everything, they are a part of this and I have come a long way already. Thoughts like that were the beginning of the end, however.
I saw my parents at mile 40 and could only stomach a couple of apricots and some coca cola. My stomach was physically rumbling, I had abdominal pain still but I just couldn’t stomach the thought of eating anything else but fruit and that just wasn’t going to get me through another 60 miles. I desperately needed calories, but couldn’t eat. I have never felt this in a race before and the less I ate, the more emotional I became as my body became exhausted.
I kept plodding on and by mile 47 as I neared the halfway point I knew I was done. Annoyingly, my legs and body were fine aside from my stomach pain. I just wanted to get to halfway and see my wife, parents and night time crew of Iain and Sarah who so kindly gave up their weekend to help and brought along their camper van. Surely the best crew anyone could ask for. I didn’t want to let them down as everyone had done so much to make this race happen for me.
I also thought of Richard Fish who had driven from Cornwall to pace me the last 40 miles from Wrotham. We still hadn’t met and I didn’t want to let him down either. I also knew he would have an awful night with me if I kept going and I needed to be selfish and do what was right for me, even if that gutted me that I had let everyone around me down.
I jogged the last two miles in and again the body was fine, but I was emotionally spent and worried about long term internal damage if I pushed through the night. I got to mile 50 in 11 hours so had 19 hours to finish the last 50 miles. I could have walked this in that time, but a death march through the night and untold pain just for a finishers buckle seemed daft. I don’t want to cross my first 100 finish line in agony and despair knowing it was awful, but shouting and screaming knowing I did all I could to make this experience a joy. I run to enjoy and to develop, not for accolades.
As soon as I saw Solange she knew I was in a bad way. She took me inside the village hall where they were serving hot food and tried to get me to hydrate and eat some pasta. I forced some down but couldn’t even look at anything else on the tables aside from watermelon and mango.
We cried and talked. We discussed walking to mile 60 and seeing if I got a second wind, but I was completely broken. Perhaps I should have carried on and looking back, now that I feel fine it is hard to see why I didn’t, but ‘in the moment’ my body was done.
My Dad sat next to me and told me how proud he was of me for getting this far, in this much pain and he never once told me to quit. He sat and listed, as did my Mum and Solange. They knew the decision was mine and supported me throughout. I couldn’t stop crying and knew I was going to have to withdraw. As soon as I made that decision relief washed over me and I knew it was sensible.
Solange got Richard on the phone and he was the most decent bloke you could possibly speak to. He understood completely and was utterly selfless. I owe him a serious debt and we will run together in November at the Brecon Beacons Ultra and I will do all I can to repay him one of these days. One of the nicest people I have never met!
Gemma Bragg was there too and it was great to see her and get a hug. She could see my despair but also knew it was the only sensible decision I could have made. I unpinned my race number, gave it to her and my day was over.
I have come along way in two years and for this reason alone I am not as upset as I thought I would be, three days on. I have talked a lot with Solange about plans now and where this leaves my goals.
Whilst I believe I had a very unfortunate series of events ensure that I did not finish, I also know that 100 mile training is really tough on me, my family and everything else in my life. Getting up at 5am to run 10 miles every day before work and a marathon every weekend (as a minimum) has given me structure and helped me grow, but it is nice to not feel compelled to have to do that now for a while.
Whilst I qualified for the Western States lottery for 2014, I will not be entering. I am not ready and were I to get in, I would be taking a place away from someone who could finish it. I also have some big things happening next year outside of running and will be focussed on saving money for this and looking at Western States in a few years. I am only 32 and have years to enter.
Next year I will not enter a 100 mile race but will enter two 50 milers (South Downs Way 50 and North Downs Way 50). I will also enter the Likeys Brecon Beacons Ultra again next November if I enjoy it this time around. I will also enter a 62 mile race, the Stour Valley Path 100k race next September. Whilst 12 miles longer than I have run to date, it is a flat course and will be a big psychological boost to me as I build up to 2015. I will also volunteer towards the end of a number of Centurion 100 milers, just to keep the pain and determination fresh in my mind and give back to the volunteers who have helped me all year.
In 2015, all going well, I will re-enter the NDW100 and be ready and prepared. My business will be older, as will my children and I will know what to do in order to finish.
Saturday, whilst I failed to finish, was an amazing experience and really does bring people closer together. I loved having my family there and I also had one of the best nights sleeps ever in Iain and Sarah’s camper van. They gave up their weekend for me and didn’t once complain, just looked after me. True, true friends. The same for my parents and Solange who must have struggled seeing me in such pain doing something that I keep telling them I love!
When I woke the next day, I knew I would have been walking and vomiting in the woods had I continued and that is not how I want to remember my first 100 mile finish.
We went back to London to my wife’s parents, had an amazing lunch and I got to cuddle my kids all afternoon. Who cares if I didn’t finish- life is about bigger things than one race, but I seriously admire every single person who crossed that line. What a huge, huge achievement. For me, it was a race that bought people close together and you can’t ask for much more than that.
To end, Jacob Rydman dropped from Western States this year, and he was a local favourite. His blog tells of his heartache at dropping, but needing to feel the humility of doing so to re-grow and come back fighting. Whilst I am not religious, he quotes something from the bible in his report that I agree with and want to end on:
“The way is hard and narrow that leads to life and there are few who find it. The way is wide and easy that leads to destruction and many enter into it.”